Andre Burakovsky

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Strong play from the third line is making the Caps’ trade deadline decision on Burakovsky much harder

Strong play from the third line is making the Caps’ trade deadline decision on Burakovsky much harder

WASHINGTON – The Capitals scored four goals to force a point against the Florida Panthers on Saturday and three of those four goals came from the third line.

Brett Connolly recorded his second career three-point game with two goals and an assist. Lars Eller scored a goal and an assist and Andre Burakovsky assisted on both of Connolly’s tallies. The one glaring setback to the night was a late penalty from Connolly as he chopped the stick out of Aleksander Barkov’s hands resulting in a slashing call. Florida would score on the resulting power play to win the game.

Overall, however, the improved play of the third line is a good sign for Washington as that line has been a question mark for the majority of the season.

“We have a good mix,” Burakovsky said. “Lars is the horse out there making a lot of good plays and winning almost [every] battle. It’s fun to play with him. And obviously Connolly is a great shooter and a great passer.”

“That’s a positive sign for our line,” Eller said, “Because our team needs that secondary scoring for us to win games. That’s going to be crucial going forward as well.”

With top-nine production being such an important part of a team’s success in today’s NHL, the lack of production from the third line has been concerning.

Eller is currently on pace for 10 goals which would be his lowest output since the 2012-13 lockout-shortened season. Connolly has already set a career high in points, but his three goals in the past two games snapped a 13-game goalless drought.

The biggest issue, however, has been Burakovsky who has continued his trend of inconsistent play this season.

Through 49 games, he has only 15 points, putting on pace for 22. That would be his lowest output since his rookie season in 2014-15, a season in which he played just 53 games. That’s not what you would expect from a first-round draft pick in his fifth NHL campaign.

Burakovsky’s play, however, has improved greatly the past two games and he has a goal and two assists to show for it.

“[Burakovsky’s] able to generate some offense now, playing well and capitalizing on chances,” Todd Reirden said.

With the third line finally starting to click, this begs the question, what do the Caps do at the trade deadline?

The Feb. 25 deadline is just over two weeks away and it was believed Burakovsky could be used as trade bait to bring in a forward to jumpstart the third line.

“I think the only thing we're going to look for is, is there a hockey trade to be made, salary for salary, player for player in the forward group,” general manager Brian MacLellan said in January. That seemed like a very clear reference to Burakovsky.

Moving Burakovsky makes sense not just because of his up-and-down play, but because he is on the final year of his deal and would have to be offered a salary of $3.25 million next season in order for the team to qualify him and retain his rights as a restricted free agent. His current level of production does not seem to justify that kind of money.

But if the third line is playing as well as it is now, do you still make a move?

Burakovsky’s career has been plagued by inconsistent play, including in the 2018 playoff run. After playing poorly, he was a healthy scratch for Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final. He then rebounded with two goals in Game 7 against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The strong play of both Burakovsky and the third line leaves MacLellan with two options. Do you hold on to Burakovsky and hope he continues this level of play into the playoffs in which case you have an incredibly formidable top-nine? Or, do you assume this is just the latest peak in a career full of peaks and valleys and trade him before you get burned when his play begins to drop off again?

Either option is a gamble. The answer may well depend on what other teams are willing to give up for a player like Burakovsky.

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Capitals mailbag: Will the Capitals keep Andre Burakovsky? Can Evgeny Kuznetsov get back to MVP form?

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Capitals mailbag: Will the Capitals keep Andre Burakovsky? Can Evgeny Kuznetsov get back to MVP form?

It’s time for the weekly Capitals mailbag! Check out the Dec. 21 edition below.

Have a Caps question you want answered for next week’s mailbag? Send it on Twitter using #CapsMailNBC or by email to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com

Please note some questions have been edited for clarity.

Greg C writes: What's your best guess as to what's going to happen long-term with Andre Burakovsky?

Andre Burakovsky is a tricky case. He is a player with obvious top-six skill, but who is plagued by inconsistent play and production. Now in his fifth NHL season, those problems just don’t seem to be going away. The Caps have tried him at a variety of spots in the lineup including in the top-six and he has not been able to establish himself. He is only 23 years old and no one could dispute his skill level so it seems premature to simply give up on him, but the issue facing the Caps is that this is the final year of his contract. As a pending RFA, to maintain his rights Washington would have to offer him a one-year qualifying offer for $3.25 million. Burakovsky has just eight points and is on pace for just 20 for the year which would be a career low. I’m just not sure the Caps would be willing to commit $3.25 million even for one year if that’s the kind of production they think they will get from him.

We have seen Burakovsky as a healthy scratch in the past and he typically responds well to it and finds a spark in his production upon returning to the lineup. Now, however, Burakovksky has sat for four consecutive games. Having a player with his skill sitting in the press box is bound to get attention and rumors abound that teams are calling to inquire about a possible trade.

Now let’s be clear, the best case scenario for Washington is for Burakovsky to catch fire, become a consistently productive player and for the team to keep him as a third-line winger who they can plug into the top-six if the need arises. The fact that he has remained a healthy scratch for this long even with trade rumors swirling suggests to me that the team is at the very least open to discussing a possible deal even if they are not actively shopping him.

Through the first 33 games of the season, Washington has again established itself as a Cup contender so I don’t think general manager Brian MacLellan would be open to talking about a deal for draft picks and/or prospects. Offensively, the Caps are very deep, but the third line becomes an obvious weakness if Burakovsky is traded as there is no clear replacement for him.

So even though Burakovsky is struggling to get back into the lineup, even though teams are inquiring about him, even though it would be expensive to issue him a qualifying offer, even though to many it appears a change of scenery would be the best move for him, a trade is not as much of a slam dunk as you might think. The Caps are better off keeping him if they think he can be a productive top-nine forward. If not, then a team is going to have to be willing to give up someone who can fill that role in order to pry him away from Washington.

Lisa M writes: I am interested in your thoughts on Caps' special teams. The PP has been strong overall but slumped of late, even with all top PP personnel back. Just a temporary blip, or do you see something else going on?

The biggest issue I have seen from the power play of late is zone entries. The Caps look as dangerous as ever when they can actually set up the power play. Getting to that point, however, is a struggle because they can’t get the puck into the zone and their break in often falls apart in the neutral zone or even back in the defensive zone depending on how aggressive the opposing penalty kill is. I believe there needs to be a better game plan for how to elevate the puck from the goal line to the opposing blue line and beyond, but I’m not overly concerned because they have strong stick handlers like Evgeny Kuznetosv and Nicklas Backstrom who should be able to eventually rectify those struggles. I think the key will be a more up-tempo, fast-paced break as the team seems to really struggle on slower, more deliberate entry attempts into the offensive zone.

Lisa M also writes: The PK has been a bigger issue. Why? Did the PK coach change this year? Are they doing something differently this year than last? What do you think the league’s top PKs (Arizona, Minnesota, SJ) are doing that the Caps PK is not?

Yes, the coach in charge of the penalty kill has changed. Lane Lambert followed Barry Trotz to Long Island and Scott Arniel is now in charge of the PK. Yes, the Caps are trying to do something different on the penalty kill this year. Todd Reirden spoke on the first day of training camp about his hope to make some changes to the penalty kill this season. What stands out is that it is far more aggressive in terms of more stickhandling in the neutral zone and more rushes up the ice rather than just simple clears. That adjustment has been a struggle and there have been times in which the Caps found themselves caught up ice after a shorthanded rush allowing for an odd-man rush in the other direction.

As for what they need to improve on, there are two glaring issues that I have seen. First, the penalty killers have a tendency to get drawn in and collapse to one area. If the puck goes to the right corner, you see four Caps players in that corner below the dot. The power play goals the Caps gave up to Rasmus Dahlin and Teuvo Teravainen last week are examples of this. Second, the Caps are not cutting off passing lanes making it too easy for opponents to move the puck around freely. Getting in a passing isn’t just about getting your body there, it’s about making yourself big, stretching the stick, blocking pucks by whatever means necessary and we have not seen that enough.

When comparing it to other penalty kills, the one I focus on is Arizona. Since the new penalty kill is aggressive at moving the puck and generating some shorthanded offense, the Coyotes’ penalty kill seems to be the closest comparable. What makes Arizona so effective at scoring shorthanded is not offensive talent, but speed. Michal Grabner has four shorthanded goals this season. He is lightning quick and that allows him to turn innocent looking turnovers into scoring opportunities and he can do it on his own or on a two-man break. It does no require pushing three or even all four of the penalty killers up ice to get a scoring opportunity. Guys like Tom Wilson, Lars Eller, Devante Smith-Pelly, Nic Dowd, T.J. Oshie, Travis Boyd, Nicklas Bckstrom, those guys do not have the same kind of breakaway speed as a player like Grabner does. Chandler Stephenson does have great speed, but he needs to get more offensively aggressive if he can fill a similar role.

Through the first month of the season, Kuznetsov looked like a real contender for the Hart. He was dominant every time he took the ice in much the same way as a Nathan MacKinnon or Connor McDavid stand out from among the pack every time they come out for a shift. The concussion Kuznetsov suffered against Winnipeg certainly did not help, but he was starting to slow down even before that and, even after playing in 27 games, he still only has one even strength goal for the season.

Kuznetsov has been subject to highs and lows throughout his career. At his best, he looks like an MVP-caliber player. At his lowest, he’s still an incredibly dynamic and dangerous forward, but just not at that superstar level. The fact that he can very quietly go on an eight-game point streak in which he had one goal and nine assists should terrify the rest of the league. If he can ever learn to be that MVP level player for 82 games, he will be thought of as being on the same level as players like MacKinnon and McDavid, he’s that talented.

Kuznetsov will be fine. At some point he is going to be put back on the top line with Ovechkin for his speed and that will likely reignite him.

Greg C writes: If Ovi keeps playing the way he's playing now, his value will never be greater than it'll be at the end of this season.  If the Caps win the Cup again, you have to keep the group together to go for the three-peat, but if they don't, should they entertain offers to trade him?

Wow, so this is not a question I was anticipating. You bring up a valid point about selling high. There are a lot of teams out there that show perhaps too much loyalty to their aging stars and thus end up over paying to keep the band together when the band is past its prime and headed nowhere. The Vancouver Canucks are a good example as they stayed loyal to the Sedin twins for longer than they should have, thus delaying the rebuild to keep a roster together that wasn’t even good enough to make the playoffs.

For 99-percent of players out there, thinking about trading a veteran who will turn 34-years old before next season at the peak of his value would be worth discussing, but there is that one-percent of players who are untouchable and Ovechkin falls into that category.

I know, Wayne Gretzky got traded and if he can get traded, anyone can get traded. But let’s not forget who Ovechkin is or what he means to this franchise. I remember the black and bronze era Caps who struggled to fill half of the MCI Center during a rebuild that led some to wonder if hockey had a future in Washington.

Ovechkin’s place in the history of the franchise means there’s no deal worth trading him for. There is no other player on the roster and no other player in the NHL that I feel that way about, not even Sidney Crosby. Ovechkin is synonymous with the Caps and responsible for turning this city into a legitimate hockey town. As long as he doesn’t go crazy when it’s time to start talking about a new contract, I expect him to be a Cap for life.

Daniel J writes: For guys like Riley Barber, Liam O’Brien, Nathan Walker who’ve been in the organization for some time, do Caps let them pursue other options or will they be on a Boyd/Stephenson path? 

Barber, O’Brien and Walker are all in the final year of their contracts and all set to become restricted free agents. All three have seen time in the NHL in the past but have not been able to make the jump from AHL to NHL. The answer to this question ultimately lies in the team’s other top-six forwards.

Burakovsky, Smith-Pelly, Dowd, Stephenson, Brett Connolly and Dmitrij Jaskin are all on the final year of their contract so there could potentially be room in the bottom-six next season for some Hershey players to get the promotion unless of course MacLellan elects to keep the band together for another run. If they can return all of the free agents listed, there is no one I would readily take out for any of the three you listed.

Of those three, Barber probably has the highest upside and the best chance to stay in the NHL. He is not in any real danger of cracking the top-six, but in today’s increasingly skilled game, there is value to having some skill and offensive touch in the bottom-six. Liam O’Brien is a feisty player and is showing more offensive upside this season than I thought he had, but I would put him as a long-shot to be an NHL player. Walker is what he is at this point. He can be a top-line guy in the AHL or an extra forward in the NHL you can feel comfortable plugging into the lineup for a handful of games if the need arises.

As RFAs, the Caps really hold all the cards in terms of their next contracts, but I could see the team being open to discussing with each player what they want their future to be. All three are good assets to have in your back pocket, but I’m not sure I see any of them as every day NHL players so that may open the door for the Caps letting them move elsewhere if those players disagree on their NHL potential.

Thanks for all your questions! If you have a question you want to be read and answered in next week’s mailbag, send it in to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com or use #CapsMailNBC on Twitter.

Merry Christmas, happy holidays and happy New Year to all!

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In a contract year, Andre Burakovsky is still trying to find offensive consistency

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In a contract year, Andre Burakovsky is still trying to find offensive consistency

Injuries and a suspension to Tom Wilson have kept things interesting for Todd Reirden in his first season as head coach of the Capitals.

At first, that meant figuring out an optimal lineup out of the players who were still available. But now there will be another challenge Reirden faces as the team continues to get healthy and that’s figuring out who to take out of the lineup.

On Tuesday, that player was Burakovsky.

“I just felt like going into [Tuesday’s] game that the other players had taken more advantage of the opportunity than he had recently,” Reirden said before Tuesday’s game. “For me, it's a rewards/earned ice time situation where there's a lot of competition. What happens is when players get opportunities and they play well, then it creates competition. Some have to win, some have to lose in that competition. Right now, that's what we've chosen to go with.”

Burakovsky’s career has been plagued by up-and-down play and scoring slumps. For the season, he has managed only eight points in 29 games. He did manage to score the game-winner against Arizona on Dec. 6, but that goal came after two very lackluster period of play by him.

“It's part of sports, I guess,” Burakovsky said Wednesday. “It is a tough sport. You're competing against the best players in the world. That's just how it is right now and I've just got to battle through it.”

Burakovsky has been cycled throughout the lineup this season, but has not gained any traction with any line or with any particular linemates so far. Thus, a player with top-six skill finds himself on the outside looking in at the lineup.

“I think guys on the team has been playing really well and deserve to play and have done a little bit more than maybe I have in the past now,” Burakovsky said. “We've been winning so that's most important thing and when I get the chance, I'm just going to go in and do my thing, play my game.”

Reirden said he was impressed by how Burakovsky has responded in practice. Given Reirden’s “rewards” system of coaching that should mean Burakovsky gets back into the lineup sooner rather than later. But if he continues to struggle to keep his production up, he will have a hard time staying in.

With both Oshie and Wilson now back from injury, the Caps have 14 forwards on the roster meaning two forwards will have to be scratched each game. There’s no one currently in the top six you would take out for Burakovsky and considering how well players like Brett Connolly are playing plus the chemistry the fourth line has found, there is not much room to plug in a struggling winger who still cannot find any consistent production.

This also calls into question what Burakovsky’s future on the team may be. Burakovsky is on the final year of his contract and will be a restricted free agent at the end of the season. It will take a qualifying offer of $3.25 million from the Caps just to retain his rights as an RFA meaning general manager Brian MacLellan is going to have to determine if he is worth that much.

As dire as his contract situation may appear from the outside looking in – especially for a player who has had confidence issues in the past – he says his next contract is not something he is thinking too much about.

“I'm not worried about my future,” Burakovsky said. “I know what I can do out there. I think I've proved what I can do and sometimes you just have to battle a little bit harder than you wanted to and it's going to happen. Right now, I think it's kind of what I'm doing.”

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