Another playoff disappointment—as well as a host of expiring player contracts—has left the Capitals with a ton of questions to answer this offseason. Over the next month, Jill Sorenson, JJ Regan and Tarik El-Bashir will take a close look at the 20 biggest issues facing the team as the business of hockey kicks into high gear.
It’s been a strange year for Andre Burakovsky. The 2013 first round pick started sluggishly and got scratched. Then he got hot. Then he got hurt. Then he struggled to regain his pre-injury form. Then he was promoted to the first line in the playoffs and got hot again. In a lot of ways, 2016-17 kinda mirrored Burakovsky’s NHL career to this point: lots of potential with a few question marks mixed in. Recently, GM Brian MacLellan indicated that Burakovsky, a 22-year-old that some in the organization fancy as a future 25-goal scorer, will be penciled into the top-6 forward group to start next season. Which is great and all, but now it’s on Burakovsky to turn that potential into production. Can he do it?
Today’s question: Is Andre Burakovsky ready to step into a full-time top-6 role?
Sorenson: I think Andre Burakovsky has absolutely proven he is ready to step up into a top-6 role. When Barry Trotz switched Alex Ovechkin and Andre Burakovsky in the playoffs, the 22-year-old responded with three goals on his new line. Playing alongside Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie, the young speedy Swede fit right in and stepped up his game. Burakovsky had a rough start to the season, but after a three-game trip to the press box, he emerged with a clear vision of how he needs to play to contribute to the Caps. He made that third line tick and then was the catalyst for improved top line production in the playoffs. The left winger finished the regular season with 35 points, 3 fewer than the year before but in 15 fewer games, thanks to a broken hand that kept him out for more than a month. With Backstrom and Marcus Johansson continuing as his mentors, Burakovsky is in good hands and will only continue to develop. He has a shoot first mentality and has become increasingly more physical. He has shown he possesses the work ethic and right attitude to keep moving toward his potential, but he has already shown he can be a very productive player in the top-6.
El-Bashir: Burakovsky has what the Caps need as they attempt to retool on the fly this offseason. Which is to say he’s young, fast and affordable (at least, he’s expected to be once he re-signs). But if he’s going to take the next step and score 25 goals next winter, it’s got to begin with a productive summer. Listed at 6-foot-3, 205-pounds, Burakovsky has good size to complement a tantalizing skill set that includes one of the quickest releases in the game. That said, he’s got some work to do between now and the start of training camp. First, he needs to add more upper body strength so that he comes out on the winning end of more battles next season. Some of that is age and maturity. Some of that is committing to getting stronger. Second, he needs to figure out the root cause of his slow starts because, well, it’s hurting him and, by extension, the team. Last season, he scored twice in the season opener and then went dry for 26 games. The year before, he went 25 games in November and December without a goal. Whether it’s mental, physical or something else, that can’t keep happening, not if he expects to keep the top-6 role Coach Barry Trotz will hand him. My take: if he adds some strength and returns to Arlington focused and ready to go, I have little doubt that he’ll have the breakout season the Caps need from him to remain competitive. If he doesn’t, it’ll be apparent and, more damaging, it could lead to a wasted opportunity.
Regan: Burakovsky needs to be ready for a top-6 role. The Caps have elected not to blow things up this offseason and instead will retool for next season. Without much money to spend, this team will be dependent on internal improvements in order to compete next season. That means Burakovsky especially must have a breakout year. Let’s face it, Alex Ovechkin is getting older. He can’t carry the team with 50 goals anymore. They need more production from the rest of the lineup. Burakovsky learned some important lessons over this past season that will help him take the next step. First, it was made clear that this team needs him to produce when Barry Trotz made him a healthy scratch for three games after a 26-game goalless drought. He responded by scoring in his first game back in the lineup. Second, when Burakovsky suffered a broken hand in February, all he could do during his recovery was work on his conditioning and boy did it make a difference. He looked like a different player when he returned. If he works that hard over the offseason and comes into training camp in shape, he will be a force to be reckoned with. We know that because when it mattered most and Trotz put Burakovsky on the top line in the playoffs, he delivered with three goals in three games. He’s ready to take the next step and be the top-six player the team needs him to be if he is willing to work for it.
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