The dog days of summer are officially here, but it's never too hot to talk some hockey.
Capitals Insider Tarik El-Bashir and Capitals correspondent JJ Regan are here to help you through the offseason doldrums. They will discuss key questions facing the Caps for the upcoming season as Washington prepares to defend its title for the first time in franchise history.
Today's question: Will we see the long-awaited breakout season from Andre Burakovsky this year?
Tarik: There’s no denying Andre Burakovsky’s ability. The quick release on his shot is world class. He effortlessly speeds past opponents with his smooth skating stride. He routinely undresses would-be defenders with his puck-dangling skills.
The 23-year-old’s feel for the game—the all-important where-to-be and when-to-be-there—is improving, too.
But there are still a couple of things that must change—and soon—if he wants to realize his full potential as a perennial 25-goal scorer in the NHL. One is within his control. The other, unfortunately, is not.
Let’s start with the former: mental toughness.
One persistent complaint about Burakovsky four years into his NHL career has been that he’s prone to protracted droughts, 15-20 game slumps where he goes without a goal. Indeed, it’s darn tough to hit 20-25 goals if you go a quarter of the season without one.
In May, Burakovsky acknowledged that he planned to resume working with a sports psychologist in an effort to skate with a clearer head and more easily move past failed plays (like misfired shots and turnovers) rather than stewing about them, a problem that often negatively impacts his performance for the rest of the game.
Will it work? Unclear. But we know this much: the first step in fixing a problem is recognizing that you’ve got one.
The second area that Burakovsky must address is health. This is the one that’s not in his control, at least not entirely. In each of the last couple of years, he’s missed large swaths of games with significant hand injuries. In 2016-17, he was limited to 64 games. Last regular season, he played in only 56. In the playoffs, he missed the final four games vs. Columbus.
Burakovsky has chalked the injuries up to freakishly bad luck. However, he’s also wondered out loud if he needs to wear gloves that provide more protection.
So, is this the year that Burakovsky puts it all together and finally tops 20 goals? If he makes significant strides in the areas of consistency and availability, I'm inclined to say yes.
JJ: Recency bias makes you automatically want to answer this question with an emphatic YES!!! after watching him put up two goals against Tampa Bay in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final. Those two goals, however, were the first two points of the playoffs for him after playing in eight games.
The main two issues for Burakovsky, as Tarik correctly identified, are his mental state and his health. Since Tarik went at length about each issue, I am not going to rehash them so let's focus on another major factor: coaching.
The way Barry Trotz handled Burakovsky's inconsistencies was by benching him and, to his credit, Burakovsky seemed to respond. Just two games prior to Burakovsky's Game 7 heroics in Tampa, he was a healthy scratch for Game 5. The season prior, Trotz scratched Burakovsky for three straight games after a 26-game goal drought and Burakovsky responded with a goal and an assist in his first game back.
While benching Burakovsky has had the desired effect in the past, that does not seem like it will be Todd Reirden's style. He is much more of a player's coach. We have seen what he can do to a defenseman's career through the personal relationships he develops with players, I have to assume he will try a similar tactic with Burakovsky. Will Reirden prove to be as effective at developing the team's forwards as he has with the defensemen? The Caps better hope so.
As effective as benching Burakovsky seemed to be, those decisions were reactive. The main goal is to prevent those slumps in the first place. The fact that Burakovsky has never eclipsed the 20-goal mark in his career is staggering considering his talent level. Reirden needs to make him a more consistent player.
Obviously getting his mind right and staying healthy are the two most important factors when it comes to a breakout for Burakovsky, but the way Reirden has been able to reach players makes me hopeful he can do the same in this situation.
Other key Caps questions:
- How will the Caps look different under Todd Reirden?
- Will the Caps suffer a Stanley Cup hangover?
- Can Alex Ovechkin still challenge for another Rocket Richard Trophy?
- Has Evgeny Kuznetsov made the jump from really good player to superstar?
- Will John Carlson repeat his career year after signing a long-term contract?
- Which Braden Holtby will we see this season?
- Will Tom Wilson make more headlines this season for his offense or physical play?
- Can Pheonix Copley handle the backup role?
- Can Jakub Vrana consistently play like a top-six forward?
- Will Devante Smith-Pelly's postseason performance translate into more production this season?
- How much will the loss of Jay Beagle impact the Caps?