Less than two months ago Andre Burakovsky was crowned as the best Capitals player under the age of 25 and it's fair to say he hasn't been meeting expectations. Burakovsky started the season as the second line center and looked uncomfortable there, significantly more uncomfortable than he looked in that position a year ago. After Backstrom's return Burakovsky moved back to his natural position on the wing and has been playing a bit better but something has been missing. Following a mediocre multi-game stint in the bottom six, Burakovsky was gifted a spot on the second line with Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson for Saturday night's game against the Maple Leafs.
" I have to work hard every day to be up there, but obviously, it’s really nice to be on a top line right now and get some confidence back and get myself going here." -Andre Burakovsky (via Isabelle Khurshudyan)
Unfortunately it didn't work out so well. Burakovsky's poor pass in the offensive zone led to his eventual hook of a Maple Leaf late in the second period. While his penalty wouldn't end up costing the Caps, it did cost Burakovsky some ice time. He played just 1:23 of even strength time in the third period.
Burakovsky hasn't made a lot of "big mistakes" this year and while that's usually a good thing, that could be an indication of the general problem with his play. Last year Burakovsky took risks and they did occasionally lead to chances the other way, but on aggregate they were a net positive for the team.
Burakovsky's rate of individual shot attempts this season is roughly the same as it was last year but he's not generating individual scoring chances like he was before (-38%).
This year Burakovsky appears to be playing it too safe. He's reluctant to engage defenders one-on-one, he frequently carries the puck back to the point in the offensive zone, and he's hesitant to take the shot when the opportunity presents itself. He's basically Maverick from Top Gun after Goose dies.
Let's look at a couple of examples of Burakovsky thinking himself out of a scoring chance, starting with this one from the Carolina game.
After maneuvering around his defender Burakovsky has a couple of options. He can continue in on goal or he can shoot the puck from a scoring area with Brooks Laich screening the goalie.
Burakovsky elects to hold onto the puck and continues to move towards the slot and still has an opportunity to shoot.
As three Carolina defenders close in around him Burakovsky should shoot but he doesn't. It's hard to see in the image but Burakovsky's stick is now in front of the puck. He moves the puck and executes a toe drag around the defender directly in-front of him. Burakovsky is now too close to the net and the defender guarding Laich swipes the puck into the corner. This whole sequence ends without a Capitals' shot attempt.
It's plausible that Burakovsky is torn between playing the way that he wants to play and the way that he thinks Trotz wants him to play. The reality is that they might not be so different.
The second example is from a similar series of events during the Boston game. The sequence starts when Backstrom drops a pass back to Burakovsky while the play is in transition.
As the first defender sticks with Backstrom and Johansson cuts through the slot, Burakovsky darts towards the scoring area and Zdeno Chara.
Burakovsky is able to keep possession of the puck and move himself into a prime scoring area
At this point he should immediately pull the trigger but instead he hesitates. Either Chara or the backchecker are able to get a stick on the puck and it harmlessly rolls off his stick and into the corner.
In both of these examples Burakovsky maneuvered himself into a scoring opportunity but he took too long to pull the trigger. It appears that Burakovsky is suffering from a case of "overthinking the game" or "holding your stick too tight" and luckily neither of those conditions are permanent and we've seen him pull the trigger quickly before.
Burakovsky's got a great shot and there's no reason for him not to unleash it, you don't have to have a wide open look at the net and open space around you in order to beat the goalie.
Trotz has handled Burakovsky well to start the season and there is no reason to expect that to change. Putting Burakovsky with Backstrom should provide the younger with ample opportunities to produce a few goals and we all know what those can do for a shooters' confidence. But playing with skilled players isn't always the best thing, playing with the other Swedes might help him use his talent more but it might also make him feel like he needs to play "more talented" hockey, which could lead to more of this over-puck-handling rather than shooting.
If he's the skill player on a more grinder type line (i.e., third line), then maybe he feels like he needs to be the shooter and he'll play a more simple game. It worked out on the "Killer Bs" line for a bit, and that wasn't a very high-skilled line. Then again, it hasn't worked out too well for Burakovsky recently even while playing with the less skilled fourth line.
The Capitals can keep winning in the regular season without Burakovsky being a stable point producer but they will need more from him if they are going to roll three scoring lines and contend for the Stanley Cup.