Capitals face conundrum with Burakovsky

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Right now, it sure seems like Andre Burakovsky is the odd man out for the Washington Capitals, and you wonder if something eventually has to give.

The Washington Post’s Isabelle Khurshudyan reports that Burakovsky is likely to be a healthy scratch during the Capitals’ Wednesday game against the Penguins (airing on NBCSN), which would mark the fourth consecutive game that Capitals head coach Todd Reirden sat him viable the dreaded “coach’s decision.”

Publicly, Reirden provided the boilerplate optimism you’d expect, even when a player seems to be in the doghouse.

“He’s just got to continue to come to work every day with the right attitude, which he has,” Reirden said, via Khurshudyan. “He’s got so much skill and talent and had a great day of practice again today. It’s a difficult situation right now; the players are making it difficult for our staff to pick the guys who should be playing each night, and that’s a good thing.”

Limited minutes if he even manages to play

To some extent, it’s true that the defending champions are fairly stacked at forward. Granted, it’s easy for me to picture Burakovsky bringing more value to the table than a limited (albeit rugged) winger like Devante Smith-Pelly, but it sure seems like Reirden’s soured on Burakovsky.

Earlier in his career, it was frustrating to see Burakovsky’s minutes somewhat limited, as it felt like a case of Barry Trotz being too rigid to trust a younger player to learn from mistakes. That’s only gotten worse under Reirden, as Burakovsky’s averaged just 11:36 TOI through the 29 games he has appeared in, a significant drop from last season (13:50) and his career average of 13:04.

Burakovsky’s struggles become a chicken-and-the-egg argument, then: how much of it is pure up-and-down play, and how much of it comes down to shaken confidence?

Checking Hockey Reference, you can see that Burakovsky often enjoyed strong possession numbers, including relative to his teammates … until 2018-19, when he’s been mediocre, if not bad. It’s noticeable that a player who was once deployed for offensive opportunities (career average of 56.8 percent of his shifts starting in the attacking zone) is now averaging a career-low of 45.9 percent.

On one hand, Burakovsky’s stock may be at a new low, judging by his underlying struggles, healthy scratches, and being limited to a disappointing eight points in 29 games. Selling low is a way to lose trades … but considering how reluctantly he’s being deployed by Reirden, maybe a trade would just be better for everyone involved?

After all, the Capitals might not want to hand the pending RFA a $3.25M qualifying offer if this funk – and impasse with Reirden – is the rule, rather than the exception.

Khurshudyan reports that the Capitals wouldn’t want futures in a hypothetical trade, instead wanting someone who could help them now. Either way, a trade before Wednesday’s holiday freeze is reportedly unlikely.

With all of that in mind, is there some sort of solution?

How Capitals can help him out

Well, that might require a bit of creativity. Back in late November, Japers Rink’s Adam Stringham brought up an interesting point: like a flip-flop of Alex Ovechkin thriving as a LW, the left-handed Burakovsky tends to put up better numbers as a RW.

Andre Burakovsky has played roughly the same number of minutes on both the right and left sides of the ice but with pretty different rates of production. Across all lines, Burakovsky’s production is 35% higher when he’s playing on his off-wing.

It could be especially bold – and make Adam Oates’ blood boil – if the Capitals rolled out a line of Ovechkin (LW), Nicklas Backstrom/Evgeny Kuznetsov at center, and Burakovsky on the right.

One could also argue that Burakovsky is worthy of more power play time whenever he might re-enter the lineup. While it would be foolish to quibble with Washington’s top unit, more reps with the second group would make a lot of sense. Burakovsky probably deserves more than 32 seconds of PP time per night, particularly since the Caps roll out two defensemen on the second group (Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen), when a lot of metrics argue that a 4F, 1D setup is more productive.

Checking Corsica’s numbers, Burakovsky has often acquitted himself well on a per-60-minutes basis, frequently meeting or exceeding the likes of T.J. Oshie at that mark. That’s not to slight Oshie; instead, the point is that the Capitals might be leaving goals and assists on the table when they’re failing to find ways to get Burakovsky on the ice.

Getting Burakovsky out there more often could pump his trade value back up, and could also help thaw out the relationship with Reirden. The Capitals have been hit by injuries more often this season merely by comparison to their almost-spooky run of near-impeccable health during the Trotz era, but if those ailments start to hit in waves, wouldn’t it be better to not just have Burakovsky around, but have him on the right track?

Considering the Capitals’ five-game winning streak, things are obviously looking good overall. It’s unlikely that many are losing sleep regarding this situation.

Still, Burakovsky is the sort of talented player who can sometimes turn the tide of a close series, or at least help Washington land that type of player in a trade. He’s not going to do that by languishing on the bench, though.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.