ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) If there was ever a good time for the Washington Capitals to go through an injury, it’s now.
That’s not a knock on Andre Burakovsky, who was a point-a-game player the last 14 games before a hand injury sidelined him until mid-to-late March. But without the 22-year-old forward, the Capitals get a chance to see what they have in youngsters like Zach Sanford, Jakub Vrana and others in case they’re needed in the playoffs.
Burakovsky was having a productive stretch when he took a slap shot to his right hand on Feb. 9, but his absence gives general manager Brian MacLellan several games to evaluate Washington’s depth ahead of the March 1 trade deadline
“Mac needs to know what we have and how comfortable we are with everybody there,” coach Barry Trotz said last week. “This last (24) games, it’s going to crank up another level. Some guys will thrive in that environment, and some guys will fall off. We’ve got to really try to find that out before the trade deadline. We feel fairly comfortable, but we’d still like to have more info.”
The Capitals lead the Eastern Conference by five points over the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, who are the example for finding silver linings in significant injuries. Last season, injuries to Evgeni Malkin, Beau Bennett and Marc-Andre Fleury opened the door for players like Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary, Tom Kuhnhackl and Matt Murray to get quality NHL ice time and show what they could do under pressure.
Washington has been the healthiest team in the league this season, so opportunities for call-ups have been limited to nine games missed by top-line right winger T.J. Oshie, a handful of precautionary blips and now Burakovsky’s absence. Only 26 players have appeared in a game for the Capitals this season, tied for the fewest in the league, but if that luck runs out, they need to be prepared.
“It’s really important that you have guys who can step in, too, in case something happens to anyone,” said center Nicklas Backstrom, who quietly is fourth in the league in scoring with 61 points.
The Capitals added to their depth on defense by acquiring Tom Gilbert from the Los Angeles Kings last week and stashing him with Hershey of the American Hockey League. Whether MacLellan seeks to make another depth move, especially up front, could depend on how Sanford does in Burakovsky’s place Wednesday at the Philadelphia Flyers and beyond.
The 22-year-old rookie had one point in his first 21 games before scoring in consecutive games upon his return.
“It’s good for a guy like (Sanford) to come in, he scores in back-to-back games, and get his confidence up a little bit because down the line we might need him to come in and be good and help us win,” forward Brett Connolly said. “There’s so many things that can happen. Guys can play poorly in the playoffs and they want to switch it up.”
The best candidates to be the 2017 versions of Sheary, Rust and Kuhnhackl are Sanford, Vrana, Tuesday call-up Travis Boyd, Chandler Stephenson and Liam O’Brien. Alex Ovechkin sees those players as more than capable of filling in if injuries happen.
“We have very good prospects and young talented players in Hershey, so they can jump in right away and play as good as they are,” Ovechkin said. “I hope nobody gonna get hurt, but it’s hockey. It’s a tough sport.”
Trotz said it’s a “next man up mentality” when injuries happen. But that next man has to be ready for the challenge, and Sanford can show that down the stretch and put his early-season confidence issues behind him.
“I think that’ll be huge for me,” Sanford said. “The playoffs are a whole different beast and hopefully when you get there if I get in (the lineup), hopefully the beginning of the season here and what we’re going through now helps me feel comfortable.”