Photo credit: Patrick McDermott
Two summers ago, Andre Burakovsky came to Capitals Development Camp as a skinny but skilled winger a few years away from the NHL. He made friends with Tom Wilson, about 11 months his senior, and the Canadian introduced him to life in North American and the “cinnamon rollers” that come with it.
Wilson made the Caps roster as a 19-year-old three months later, playing in every one of the team’s 82 games but barely getting on the ice. He registered 15 times more penalty minutes than points. Connor Carrick, another 19-year-old, also made the team out of camp. Though Carrick impressed early with manifest skill, he struggled as the season went on. Thanks to the Caps barren defense, Carrick was playing minutes he wasn’t ready for. Like Wilson, Carrick was ill-served by his rookie experience.
“It’s tough for a young kid,” new Caps GM Brian MacLellan said in his introductory press conference, admitting the team should have handled the players differently.
This year, another teenager has made the team out of training camp. In the Washington’s search for a second line center, Burakovsky was an unlikely option, but he stuck around. A week out from opening night it became clear the Caps saw him as an NHL player.
On Thursday night, Burakovsky made his debut. Within seven minutes, he had his first NHL goal, three weeks after scoring in his first preseason game. In the elongated shootout, Barry Trotz put the game on Burakovsky’s stick, but the rookie fired his shot into Dustin Tokarski’s pad.
“Very good,” Trotz said when asked what he thought of the Swede’s performance. “I thought he was gonna get the winner for a long time there.”
Burakovsky’s goal was crisply executed and vaguely reminiscent of Alex Ovechkin’s first career tally. Six minutes and 43 seconds into the first period, Troy Brouwer picked off the puck on the forecheck before feeding it to Burakovsky in the slot for a one-timer. Burakovsky, perhaps in a nod to Ovi, sheepishly leapt into the boards.
“It was real nice,” the rookie said after the game. “It’s huge. It’s just a great moment, but it would be so much better if we just win this game.”
Brouwer and Burakovsky were creating offense all night, with Burakovsky almost setting up Brouwer for the winning goal. Along with Marcus Johansson, the second-line trio was Washington’s most effective.
“I think me, Jojo, Brouw is playing really good together,” Burakovsky told me. “We find each other really good out there. We being a threat for Canadiens all night and we just gotta keep it up the same way and score some goals.”
Burakovsky is a good player: he’s skilled, but he doesn’t use that as an excuse do anything dumb. I never noticed him out of position on Thursday and he set up his teammates well. His line tailed off towards the end of the game, but they were, all around, still better than anybody else in white. Nevertheless, Burakovsky will struggle soon enough. He’s small and light, liable to get pushed around. He is also not a natural center. Being a pivot requires you to be alert on defense and win faceoffs, a tough task for a kid who’s never played higher than juniors. On Thursday, he won just 21 percent of his draws. Burakovsky looks great now, but as the Capitals know from past experience, we don’t know if it will stick.
“I played my first game,” Burakovsky said. “Now we’ll just have to take it from there.”
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