While it's too early in the season to be paying much attention to many of the advanced metrics we've come to rely upon in evaluating player performance, four games into the season one thing is quite clear whether we're using stats or the "eye test": Andre Burakovsky is good. While his pre-season struggles in the face-off dot have persisted into the regular season, his offensive skill set has made him a big-time contributor for the Capitals through the first few games of the regular season. The team's second-line of Burakovsky centering Marcus Johansson and Troy Brouwer (or Brooks Laich against New Jersey) has been both very solid and consistent. They were responsible for the Caps' only goal in the season opener against the Canadians and the game-tying goal against the Sharks. And, with a little luck, they could be doing even more damage. Here is a look at what Burakovsky has been doing right to start his NHL career.
Burakovsky wasted no time putting his skill on display, demonstrating slick puck-handling and speed on his very first shift:
After retrieving a puck that was knocked loose during a board battle, Burakovsky is immediately pressured by one of Montreal's forwards. Rather than falter under the forecheck (and chip the puck off the boards) he elects to dangle around his opponent, and in doing so creating an offensive opportunity going the other way.
After being tripped up at the blue line, Burakovsky makes a backhand pass (while on his knees) to Johansson who continues up the ice with Brouwer. As Brouwer and Johansson angle off to the center and right hand portions of the offensive zone, Burakovsky identifies an open lane on the left side of the ice and takes it. Brouwer, who has now received the puck from Johansson, recognizes the open man and successfully feeds it to him resulting in a shot.
Now, making fancy plays (or, for some coaches, just about any plays) in the defensive zone is usually frowned upon. And this specific move probably gave Barry Trotz pause. But when a player has a skill-set like Burakovsky's the potential rewards can often outweigh the perceived risks. They certainly did here - Burakovsky's skill move in the defensive zone generated a scoring chance and drew a penalty for a team that should have a power-play that converts north of 20%; not a bad first regular-season shift.
Burakovsky has looked good so far this year during five-on-five play, but he has looked even better when he is afforded the extra ice of four-a-side hockey. The first (regular season) evidence of his prowess came during the early stages of the second period against Montreal when Burakovsky was paired with Eric Fehr for a defensive zone faceoff. The ensuing play resulted in 29 consecutive seconds of offensive zone time for the Caps.
First off, how about that play by Eric Fehr after the faceoff? (But don't look so surprised - we told you he helps in the dot.) Talk about a winger helping out his centerman, Burakovsky appeared to have lost that draw but was able to tie up the stick of his opponent enough to allow Fehr to swoop in and gain possession. Fehr, like Burakovsky in the earlier clip, immediately looks to head up ice.
Thanks to a more mobilizing defensive strategy and his individual skill set, Matt Niskanen has no qualms about moving up the ice with the offense. Niskanen's move draws the attention of both the Canadians' center and their left defenseman. The Canadians' right defenseman uses his stick to tab Burakovsky as the back-checking target for the Canadian's other forward, after doing so he proceeds into a defensive position between Fehr and Burakovsky's attacking lanes.
Due to the Canadiens' shift, Niskanen does not have a clear lane for a controlled entry. Rather than attempting a near-side chip play for Fehr, Niskanen elects to dump the puck into the far side corner. Despite turning to the inside before realizing the puck is bound for the corner behind him, the Canadiens' right defenseman is able to reach Burakovsky before he is able to cleanly recover possession. During the ensuing puck battle the puck is knocked loose to Karl Alzner who has taken up position on the left point. Alzner is able to keep the play alive by hugging the wall and eventually feeding it to Burakovsky on the same-side boards. Burakovsky executes a quick pass to Fehr, who is already moving towards the net. Fehr carries the puck into a high percentage scoring area and hits the iron with his shot.
Niskanen recovers the rebound at the right point and once again elects to dish the puck into the far side corner. The puck takes a strong bounce back up towards the half-boards. Thanks to a pinching Karl Alzner, who essentially shuts out the Canadians' player, Burakovsky is able to recover the puck cleanly by passing it off the boards to himself. A quick give-and-go passing play between Burakovsky and Niskanen causes some confusion in the Canadians' defensive coverage, leaving Eric Fehr wide open near The Ovi Spot. Burakovsky identifies the breakdown and makes a good pass resulting in another high quality chance.
This was a great shift for all four Capitals' players on the ice, as each player factored in to the play at least twice.
Burakovsky's vision and hands were again highlighted during four-on-four play, this time during the overtime period. Thanks to some Troy Brouwer pressure and poor decision-making from a Canadiens' defenseman, Andre Burakovsky picks-off an errant pass and (as he and his teammates have in both of the other clips) immediately looks to go on the attack:
Due to the rapid nature of the attack, or poor communication, both Canadiens' defensemen go after Burakovsky (who is also under pressure from a back-checker). The key part of this play comes when Burakovsky hits the blue line. Burakovsky can either fight the back-checker and continue down his lane of entry, which would essentially let the Canadians' defensemen off the hook for their poor positioning as Burakovsky would be trapped along the boards. His second option, and his choice, was to go back against the back-checker and cut towards the center of the ice. Notice how, while his feet appear to be angling him in that direction already, Burakovsky waits to fully commit to breaking towards the middle until the back-checker's stick is positioned to the outside of his body. Burakovsky then takes advantage of some poor defensive positioning to find Brouwer with a perfectly executed pass. Unfortunately Brouwer missed his target.
Over a small sample size Andre Burakovsky has shown himself to be a dynamic player. He has good vision, speed and strength, and is able to maneuver the puck in and out of very small areas. Early indications are that Andre Burakovsky is going to be a special player for the Washington Capitals... and maybe sooner than anyone thought.