Weeks after being taken 23rd overall by the Capitals in last year’s NHL draft Andre Burakovsky was faced with a difficult decision.
Should he follow the advice of the Capitals and report to the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League?
Or should he follow the advice of just about everyone close to him in Sweden and play another year or two in Malmo.
He chose Erie and despite a rough start under Otters coach Kris Knoblauch, he says it was the best hockey decision he’s ever made.
“The first four games I was really, really bad and the coach put me on the bench and stuff,” Burakovsky recalled Monday after the start of his second development camp with the Caps. “I didn’t understand how I could play so well the year before and then I come over here and nothing really worked for me.”
Burakovsky admitted he had trouble adapting to the smaller ice surface of the OHL but it didn’t take long for him to show what made him the Caps’ top pick, recording 41 goals and 46 assists with a plus-46 in 57 games.
“In my mind, the adjustment didn’t take long,” Knoblauch said. “You could tell as soon as he joined us he’s an exceptional player.”
Exceptional enough to play in the NHL next season?
“Realistically, I think he is ready,” Knoblauch said. “His skills and his intelligence on the ice, I think he’s ready there. I think the only question mark was his physical strength, and certainly last year he was never intimidated by other players but he needed to get stronger to play at the next level in the NHL and I’m sure with a summer of working hard he’d be very close to being able to being a regular there. I’m certain he is very close.”
Burakovsky said the biggest difference between playing in Sweden and playing in the OHL was dealing with the physicality of the North American game. At 6-foot-1, 178 pounds, Burakovsky had to learn what it meant to take a hit to make a play.
“The smaller rink, it’s so much faster,” he said. “You have to go harder to the net and it’s a more physical game, too. You need your head up all the time. In my opinion it’s more fun because I like to dangle a lot. I like to move and the small rink is perfect for that.”
The question facing Burakovsky now is whether he return to Erie for a second season or makes the Caps’ roster as the high-scoring left wing they have been lacking since Alex Ovechkin moved from the left side to the right.
If Burakovsky returns to Erie, he’ll be reunited with center Connor McDavid, whom Burakovsky described as the next Sidney Crosby.
If he makes the Capitals as a left wing he has the chance to play on one of the top two lines with centermen like Nicklas Backstrom or Evgeny Kuznetsov.
“I don’t know what the Washington Capitals have for depth, but if he’s ready then certainly he should have a spot with him because I think Andre’s definitely going to be a good hockey player in the NHL,” said Knoblauch, who said Burakovsky’s wrist shot off the rush is his greatest attribute.
“I know he’s one of the best players in the Ontario Hockey League. I have no doubt he can make that transition, but when is up to Washington to decide.”
Does Burakovsky think he’s ready for the NHL?
“I don’t know,” he said. “I played some games last year in the preseason and I feel I did really good there. The OHL was really good for me, too, and I might be ready to at least try to play in the NHL.”
At 19, Burakovsky is in a similar situation that Tom Wilson found himself in last year when he could play in either the NHL or the OHL, but nowhere else. Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said he would have liked to have seen Wilson develop more by playing one more season in the OHL.
Capitals assistant general manager Ross Mahoney said he was impressed by Burakovsky’s first season in the OHL but thinks he needs to get a little stronger to play in the NHL.
“I’m working on that every day with my personal trainer back home [in Malmo],” Burakovsky said. “I’m trying to get bigger and stronger every day and really focus on that. It’s no rush, it’s coming by itself. I just have to take one step at a time. It’s not just training all the time. I have to sleep a lot and eat right.”
Burakovsky says he’ll also need to improve on his defensive game if he hopes to make a lasting impression on Barry Trotz and his coaching staff in September.
“I look forward to the main camp,” Burakovsky said, “and I want to do whatever it takes to play some games in the NHL.”