Andre Burakovsky

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Key Caps questions: Will this be a breakout year for Andre Burakovsky?

Key Caps questions: Will this be a breakout year for Andre Burakovsky?

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.

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Burakovsky is back in for Game 6

Burakovsky is back in for Game 6

Coach Barry Trotz indicated that Andre Burakovsky’s benching wouldn’t last long.

And it didn’t.

The 23-year-old winger will return to the lineup on Monday night as the Caps look to stave off elimination in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final.

During the morning skate, Burakovsky skated on the third line with Lars Eller and Brett Connolly—a trio that’s enjoyed some success in the past.

It’s been a difficult postseason for Burakovsky, who has not recorded a point in six games. He missed 10 contests after suffering a hand injury in Game 2 of the first round that required minor surgery.

What he found out upon returning was this: coming back from injury in the regular season is hard...and it’s exponentially tougher in the playoffs.

“It’s definitely tough to jump in in the semifinal,” he said. “When you’re out, you just want to get in and help the team and do what you’re good at—score goals and produce.”

“What I realized is that it’s not that easy,” he added. “I really thought I could jump in and just play like I did before I got injured. 

But obviously it didn’t work out as well I thought it would.”  

Burakovsky also said that he’s planning to work with a sports psychologist this summer in an effort to maintain an even keel when things aren’t going as well as he would like. It’s a problem that he said he’s struggled with since his childhood.

Asked what he hopes to see from Burakovsky in Game 6, Coach Barry Trotz kept it simple: offense.

The Caps have scored just two goals in each of the last three games, with Evgeny Kuznetsov contributing 50-percent of that total.

“He’s a guy that’s given us some good offense all through his time here,” Trotz said of Burakovsky. “We think that he can add some of that.”

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Burakovsky returns to Caps practice ahead of Game 1 vs. Lightning, Backstrom does not

Burakovsky returns to Caps practice ahead of Game 1 vs. Lightning, Backstrom does not

Andre Burakovsky returned to practice in a non-contact jersey on Wednesday and, in the words of Coach Barry Trotz, has been upgraded from day-to-day to week-to-week.

Burakovsky was not permitted to speak to reporters after practice but he did not seem to be overly encumbered by the upper-body injury that has sidelined him since early in the first round. Burakovsky has been making steady progress and his return to the lineup could be sooner rather than later

Trotz said Burakovsky will accompany the team to Tampa, where the Caps and Lightning open the Eastern Conference Finals on Friday.

Nicklas Backstrom will also travel with the team, though he did not practice on Tuesday. He’s been out since Game 5 due to an upper-body injury.

“He’s working out and getting the therapy he needs,” Trotz said, adding that Backstrom is still considered day-to-day.

Trotz wouldn’t say whether he expects either player to suit up for Game 1. 

The Caps are slated to practice Thursday morning before departing for Tampa. Afterward, more information on the readiness (or lack thereof) of both forwards figures to be available.  

Burakovsky was not assigned to a line during Wednesday’s session and he didn’t take all of his usual reps. Backstrom’s spot in the middle of the second line, meanwhile, was occupied again by Lars Eller.

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