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Burakovsky ready for some heavy lifting


Burakovsky ready for some heavy lifting

Andre Burakovsky remembers the awkward feeling he had when he first walked into the Capitals locker room as a wide-eyed 19-year-old rookie trying to make a good first impression.

“I was kind of nervous to fit in with the guys,” Burakovsky said following a recent workout at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, where the Caps begin training camp today with off-ice testing, physicals and promotional shoots. “This year it’s real fun to be back with the guys and I’m not nervous at all, actually.”

Last season was an interesting rookie year for Burakovsky, a quiet and talented forward taken by the Capitals with the 23rd pick of the 2013 NHL draft. Coming off a 41-goal, 87-point season with the OHL Erie Otters the year before, Burakovsky scored a goal in his first NHL game and immediately looked like he belonged with the big boys, recording three goals and nine assists in his first 15 games with the Caps.

Asked about his early success in mid-November, Burakovsky said the transition to the NHL was easier than he anticipated, but it was about to get harder.

RELATED: Burakovsky wants Caps 'bro-mance' to continue

From Nov. 14 to Dec. 4 Burakovsky had one goal, no assists and was a minus-5 and Capitals coach Barry Trotz yanked him from the lineup, making him a healthy scratch in eight of the team’s next 11 games. During that time Burakovsky missed a chance to play for Sweden in the World Junior Championships.

He returned to the lineup for 10 more games and scored three more goals, but Trotz was unhappy with his defensive play. Over the final two months of the season Burakovsky was assigned to the AHL Hershey Bears on four separate occasions and was a healthy scratch for the Capitals 10 more times, including the first three games of the playoffs.

Burakovsky, who finished the regular season with nine goals, 13 assists and a plus-12 rating in 53 games,  quietly stewed, saying he wanted to prove to Trotz that he belonged on the ice and “not in the stands.”

He was given that chance in Game 4 of the Caps’ first-round series against the Islanders and he was a solid two-way player for the remainder of the playoffs, averaging 12:24 of ice time and having a monster two-goal game against the Rangers in Game 4, where he showed off his lightning-quick release to beat Henrik Lundqvist twice in the same game.

“I think the playoffs were really important for me to prove I could play at such a high level,” Burakovsky said. “I was really happy with my playoff. I thought I played really good and that’s something I can take into this season.”

By the end of last season Burakovsky was up to 200 pounds, far bigger than the 178 pounds when he was drafted. But the Caps wanted him to come to training camp stronger, both in the upper body and in his core muscle group.

After the Bears were eliminated in the second round of the Calder Cup playoffs, where he scored a goal in his only playoff game, Burakovsky said he took off five days before starting on- and off-ice workouts in Sweden, where he worked on strengthening his core.

He returned to Washington weighing 205 pounds and feeling better equipped to handle the heavy interior play of the NHL.    

“I just feel like I can handle the hits better,” Burakovsky said. “My balance is a lot better this year because I worked a lot with the core. It feels like I have a lot more balance when I’m skating and guys hit me.”

“I feel really good. My skating feels good, my legs are a lot stronger, too, and my shot is good. It feels really good to get to camp.”

With center Nicklas Backstrom recovering from offseason hip surgery, Trotz has told Burakovsky to be prepared to play both center and left wing during the Caps’ seven-game preseason, which begins on Monday night.  

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Burakovsky said. “It doesn’t bother me at all. I can play center, left wing, right wing. It doesn’t matter to me at all. I just want to give 100 percent.”

However he is used, Burakovsky said he is certain of one thing. At the age of 20 he is much more prepared to be an impact player in the NHL this season than he was a year ago.

“I think the longer you stay in the league you get more comfortable with the routine and how the game works up here,” he said. “I feel a lot more comfortable this season than last season.”

MORE CAPITALS: Report: Nikulin will not join friend Ovechkin in NHL

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The Caps are a bad faceoff team, here’s what they’re doing about it

USA Today Sports

The Caps are a bad faceoff team, here’s what they’re doing about it

Tuesday’s practice was a lot like every other for the Caps until the end. After working on the power play, the team gathered at one end of the ice and began working on faceoffs. It was not just the centers, but wingers and defensemen alike got into the action with every win celebrated by loud cheers from teammates.

It should could as no surprise to see faceoffs as a point of emphasis for Washington considering just how much the team has struggled with them in the early season. The Caps rank 30th in the league in faceoff win percentage at only 43.8-percent.

“Yeah, there's little details that can help our game,” Lars Eller told reporters after practice. “The more you have the puck, easier the game is gonna be for you. We have a little more time in between games than usual during the season here, so we have the time to work on something like that, which can be little things that makes the difference.”

The team as a whole watched video on faceoffs prior to practice and then worked as a five-man unit during the drill. The main point of emphasis head coach Todd Reirden wanted to drill into his players was that faceoffs are not simply the responsibility of the centers alone.

“The days of it just being center vs. center and a clean draw being won back are a rarity now so it's important to have all five guys helping, something we watched video on earlier today,” Reirden said.

“You ask any centerman if they have a good group of wingers that can help them out on draws, that makes a huge difference,” Nic Dowd said. “I've been lucky, I have [Devante Smith-Pelly] on my right and I'm a righty so I win all my draws my backhand side so a lot of pucks go his way and he wins a lot of draws for me. That's huge. You have a guy that's sitting over there that's sleeping, you could go easily from five wins to five losses and then that's your night. It makes a big difference.”

Faceoffs were always going to be more of a struggle for the Caps this season with the departure of Jay Beagle who was, by far, the team’s best faceoff man for several years. Whenever the team needed a big draw, Beagle was the player relied upon to win it. With him gone, it is no surprise to see the team struggle.

But the Caps don’t like the idea of keeping possession off a draw just 43.8-percent of the time.

“It's essentially like the ref is creating a 50-50 puck and you snap it back, you get possession, now you're forechecking and it makes a huge difference,” Dowd said. “You play against those top lines, they want to be in the O-zone. Well, if you lose the draw, now you're playing D-zone, you win the draw now you're playing O-zone. So effectively, you've shut down their shift.”

There is a school of thought suggesting that perhaps the importance of winning faceoffs is overrated and a team’s faceoff win percentage is not overly important. Eller himself admitted as much to reporters.

What no one can argue, however, is that while some faceoffs may not matter all that much, there are some that are hugely important in a game. The Caps recognize that. For them, being a strong faceoff team is not necessarily about improving the team’s win percentage, but more about being able to win those critical draws.

“It's something that for the most part the players understand and a neutral zone faceoff with 14 minutes to go in the first period is not nearly as important as one that's 5-on-6 at the end of the game,” Reirden said. “We all know that. It's important to put the right people on those situations and give them the best chance to have success.”

“A center ice draw, I could see where guys could make the argument, well you lose it you still will play hockey and stuff could still happen,” Dowd said. “But I think the game is such a possession game now that any opportunity you can win a 50-50 puck whether that's a faceoff or a board battle, it makes a huge difference.”


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The case for 'Making Hockey Fun Again,' and the Capitals’ place in it

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The case for 'Making Hockey Fun Again,' and the Capitals’ place in it

Like it or not, the NHL is becoming younger, louder, and more personable. And as its young stars begin to gain leadership positions, the demand from a younger subset of fans grows larger: Make hockey fun again. Let players have personality on the ice and off, be it through social media engagement, game-day fashion, or creative goal celebrations.

Some say that hockey was always fun. True, to an extent. 

Minute per game minute, you arguably can’t find a faster, more action-packed major sport. But among the North American leagues, and internationally, the NBA still dominates on Twitter activity and in its social media. 

One of the biggest factors that helped basketball succeed in the social age wasn’t the NHL’s commonly preached conformity.

The NBA found huge success in marketing its star players as larger-than-life, letting them have public personas that tied into larger, richer narratives spanning careers, teams, and decades.

Superstar Auston Matthews, the up-and-coming 21-year-old face of American hockey, has taken note, citing NBA star Russell Westbrook’s individuality as a source of inspiration in a recent GQ feature

He’s well met by former USA National Team Development Program teammates Jack Eichel, who was recently named captain of the Buffalo Sabres; Dylan Larkin, Detroit’s hometown darling who’s stepping up as an assistant captain for the Red Wings; and Matthew Tkachuk, who’s also wearing an A in Calgary.

It’s not only the born and bred American youngsters who are ready to stand out. The team responsible for the resurgence of the debate about how much fun is too much is none other than the Washington Capitals, whose summer celebrations led to the ban of the legendary Cup Stand.

Though the publicity of their championship celebrations was revolutionary, the Capitals hold more promise in amount of fun per sixty. After a title win, their petty grudges are only transforming into a bold sense of self-confidence.

Alex Ovechkin is already a superstar on a mission to grab the attention of all the boys and girls and babes in the hockey world. Evgeny Kuznetsov’s interviews and celebrations reveal a player growing into the spotlight, ready to embrace a downright devious kind of skill against his opponents. Braden Holtby is already a league-recognized style icon whose meticulously chosen plaid suits and well-groomed beard have woven into the hype of game-day coverage. And Nicklas Backstrom is finally smiling on-camera.

(This isn’t even mentioning highly polarizing figure Tom Wilson, whose aggressive approach on the ice has earned him the marking of a player everyone hates unless he’s on their team.)

If the NHL wants to appeal to new viewers, it can gain ground by marketing its stars outside of a bland, monotone mold for success. 

With high-scoring, chaotically delightful games that happen almost every night all across the continent, an audience needs something to anchor them.

Individuality isn’t a bad place to start.