Most of the Washington Capitals key players are all at least 30 years old. Captain Alex Ovechkin and right wing T.J. Oshie are or will be 30 by year’s end, and center Nicklas Backstrom will turn 29 next month. Key veterans Justin Williams and Brooks Orpik are both at least 35.
But if the Capitals expect to go further in the playoffs this season, they will need a couple youngsters to burst onto the scene as key figures. The team’s youngest player, Andre Burakovsky, is off to a great start.
He scored twice in the season opener against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday. Burakovsky, who won’t turn 22 until February, finished 2015-16 strong and appears poised for a breakout. He ended the 2015-16 season with 17 goals and 38 points, but he tallied 15 of those goals and 30 points in the team’s final 47 regular season games.
That kind of production warranted a bigger role for the 21-year-old. Through two games, coach Barry Trotz has him playing alongside center and fellow countrymen Niklas Backstrom, who assisted both of Burkovsky’s goals Thursday.
On the first goal, the 21-year-old sped right down the middle of the Pittsburgh defense where Backstrom found him on a semi-breakaway. Burakovsky beat goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury between his legs for Washington’s first goal of the season.
His second tally was another wrist shot, again setup by Backstrom, who dropped a pass back to Burakovsky, that beat Fleury on his glove side.
“I thought the Backstrom line was really good,” Trotz said according to the Washington Post. “They were by far our best line, I thought. … That line was, I thought, our most effective line by a large margin.”
Burakovsky scored all 17 of his goals last season at even strength, and both of his scores Thursday were in 5-on-5 situations. Only Ovechkin had more even-strength goals than Burakovsky did for the Capitals in 2015-16.
If the 21-year-old continues to improve, the he could notched 20 even-strength goals this season, but playing on the second line, Burakovsky is also due to see more power-play ice time.
Last season, he averaged just 48 seconds per game on the power play, so not surprisingly, only four of his points came on the man advantage. It’s obviously a small sample size, but Burakovsky is fifth among forwards with 3:18 minutes of power play ice time per game this season.
The emergence of Burakovsky is a key component to this season’s Capitals team. Scoring depth was a major problem in the series against the Penguins last spring, so while the 21-year-old isn’t skating on Washington’s third line anymore, he does still make the team deeper. Moving him up enables the older Williams to move down to the third line. At 35, Williams is due for fewer minutes anyway, and with Burakovsky emerging, the Capitals can focus on keeping “Mr. Game 7” fresh for the postseason.
Burakovsky underwent extensive training this summer in preparation for more minutes. His weight increased to 205 pounds, which he said he believes will help him in front of the net this season.
Of course, playing with Backstrom is going to be the biggest of helps. In just two games, the two have showcased they obviously have chemistry with one another. On the same line, 26-year-old Marcus Johansson, another Swedish forward, skates on the other wing. He picked up an assist on his countryman’s first goal.
“I think we (my linemates) had a really good and strong game together,” Burakovsky said. “I think we kind of all three are thinking the same way. Me and JoJo have a lot of speed on the outside, and Nicky is just probably the smartest player in the league, so I think we have a lot of chemistry together.”
Of course, the rise of Evgeny Kutznetsov is what makes this second line possible for Washington. Otherwise, Backstrom would remain on the top unit alongside Ovechkin.
Thanks to Kutznetsov, Burakovsky is really ready to explode. The 21-year-old should be more productive for multiple reasons, including due to the fact he will log major minutes with one of the best passers in the league.