Photo: Sports Illustrated
Going into last season with the departures of forwards Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson due to salary cap constraints, the Capitals were hoping forward Andre Burakovsky could slide into one of those spots and replace some of that production (48 goals) that walked out the door. He found chemistry on the top line with forwards Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie at the end of the team’s series against the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2017, where he recorded three goals and four points in two games. Unfortunately for the Capitals and Burakovsky, it hasn’t worked out as they had hoped.
Burakovsky went through multiple long scoring slumps, but had a couple of hot streaks in February and late March last season. He was playing well heading into the playoffs until he broke his hand in Game 2 of the Capitals’ first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets. He returned for the Conference Final, where he was a healthy scratch for a game but was the Game 7 hero for the Capitals. He scored two huge insurance goals to power the Capitals past the Tampa Bay Lightning and advance to the Stanley Cup Final. He also played well in the final, where he had four assists against the Vegas Golden Knights.
He had a lot to feel good about going into the regular season. However, he has not played well so far this season. Through seven games this season, Burakovsky has yet to record a point and his -6 rating is tied with defenseman Dmitry Orlov for the worst on the team. Burakovsky has had a minus rating in five of the Capitals’ seven games this season. The only times he didn’t have a minus rating was the Capitals’ season-opening victory over the Boston Bruins (+1), a 7-0 victory, and Wednesday’s game over the New York Rangers (even rating), a 4-3 overtime victory. Forward Dmitrij Jaskin, who has played in four games this season, and defenseman Madison Bowey, who has appeared in just two games this season, are the only players other than Burakovsky who have yet to find the scoresheet.
Capitals’ head coach Todd Reirden was not afraid to send a message to the 23-year old Swede when he was shuffling his line combinations when the team was trailing the Florida Panthers by a score of 4-1 at the end of the first period on Friday. Burakovsky was demoted to the fourth line and played a season-low 8:07 worth of ice time in the Capitals’ 6-5 shootout loss to the Panthers.
Last year when head coach Barry Trotz made a big cut in Burakovsky’s ice time, a healthy scratch usually followed. Don’t be surprised to see the young Swede in the press box on Monday night, when the Capitals begin their four-game Canadian road trip against the Vancouver Canucks.
After failing to meet expectations for years, what’s next for Burakovsky? His role could go down significantly when Capitals forward Tom Wilson returns from his 20-game suspension, which could be shortened following a decision from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman after Wilson presented his case for an appeal on Thursday.
The chances are that when Wilson returns from suspension, that could bump Burakovsky out of the lineup if he doesn’t get in gear sooner rather than later.
If he keeps getting scratched and benched like the team has done repeatedly with him in the past, Burakovsky could very well request a trade. The fact that this has been nothing new for Burakovsky and with the team’s forward depth, opportunity will be a lot harder to find for him in Washington. He can also become a restricted free agent this summer, which could make it more attractive for the team, player, and other clubs to make a deal happen. Since he is slated to become a restricted free agent, his next contract must be at least 100% of his last contract, meaning the Capitals will be paying him at least $3 million per year if they sign him to another contract. With Backstrom and goaltender Braden Holtby up for new contracts in 2020, the Capitals cannot afford to pay Burakovsky at the rate he’s performing at because the team needs to lock up two of their most important players.
If you’re thinking “who would trade for him?” there are plenty of teams that are need scoring depth that could take a chance on him. The Edmonton Oilers and Dallas Stars have plenty of talent up front with forwards Connor McDavid, who Burakovsky played with on the top line when he was on the OHL’s Erie Otters, Leon Draisaitl, Jamie Benn, and Tyler Seguin but could be in need of more scoring depth as both teams are relatively thin behind their superstars.
Even if trading Burakovsky was on the table, the Capitals would most likely want to send him out West in case Burakovsky turns out to be what the Capitals expected him to.
Burakovsky needs to heat up sooner rather than later, especially with the Capitals in need of depth scoring. If he doesn’t, big decisions will have to be made with him whether that keeps him in Washington or not.
By Harrison Brown