October 18, 2017

History repeating: Burakovsky’s overdue move to AHL reflects Caps poor development plan

Assistant Coach Blaine Forsythe and Andre Burakovsky Washington Capitals Practice, 10/07/2014 (Photo by Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Assistant Coach Blaine Forsythe and Andre Burakovsky
Washington Capitals Practice, Oct. 17, 2014 (Photo by Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

As soon as the Washington Capitals traded for Curtis Glencross, it was only a matter of time before Andre Burakovsky found himself in Hershey. The young winger has cycled between the top line and press box for much of the season and once the team had one more forward than they could fit into the roster it wasn’t hard to guess who the odd man out was.

But after spending the season at the NHL level and compiling nine goals and 12 assists in 49 games, is sending Burakovsky back to the AHL the right move for his development?

One of the tough parts of an NHL coach’s job is managing young players. Coaches must balance what is best for the team with what’s best for the player’s development and sometimes the two do not coincide. That has been evident this season with how the team has handled Burakovsky, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson.

The bottom line is that all three of these players were forced into playing time this season due to a lack of viable option at the start of the season.

One of the many criticisms of Adam Oates’ tenure as the Capitals’ coach was his handling of Wilson in 2013-14. Given how harshly he was judged for how he mishandled one of the team’s top prospects, it is only fair to examine how Barry Trotz has done with his young players this season.

When it comes to development, there is no handbook on how to do it. Everyone has their own theories on what works and every player develops differently. Almost everyone agrees, however, that the best thing for a developing player is to get playing time regardless of the level.

Coaches also need to take into account what type of player they believe a prospect will be in order to determine the type of minutes they give him.

With that in mind, how has Trotz handled the team’s top three prospects this season?

Andre Burakovsky

The original plan for Burakovksy was to play center, but that plan was abandoned as Trotz felt it was too ambitious to try to develop both Burakovsky and Kuznetsov down the middle in the same season.

That’s fair, but it’s something the team should have figured out before the NHL season began.

When Burakovsky made the switch to wing, he played frequently on the top line. When he was not with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, he was often a healthy scratch.

Burakovsky projects to be a top-six forward if not a top-line forward. For that reason, it really does not make sense to bump him down to the third or fourth lines. Checking and agitating lines have very different roles over the course of a game than do the top two lines. Moving Burakovsky down, therefore, would not really help his development because he would be expected to do things that are just not in his skill set.

This is why we often see top-six forwards cycle between the AHL and NHL. It is better for a player like Burakovsky to play on a top AHL line than it is for him to play on a fourth NHL one. That way, a player will get more playing time to work on their skill set instead of getting punched in the face for seven minutes a night.

Having Burakovsky take notes from the press box makes sense to a point — he’s still learning and sometimes it helps to watch as long as Trotz lets him know what he is watching for. Yet, Trotz may have gone a bit overboard.

Of the team’s 67 games, Burakovsky has played in 49 of them. That’s nearly 20 games for him as a healthy scratch. That’s why sending him to Hershey was the right move, though it took longer for him to get there than it should have.

It doesn’t matter if you think Burakovsky is the Caps’ best option for the top-line right wing. Clearly, Trotz doesn’t. If Burakovsky still has as much to learn as Trotz believes he does, then it will be better for him to play in the AHL than it will be to take notes in the NHL.

Evgeny Kuznetsov

Developing a player like Kuznetsov is a bit different given how much experience he has in the KHL. In Russia, Kuznetsov was playing in the best professional hockey league in the world other than the NHL. This is not a junior league or a minor league, it is a full-fledged professional league.

The KHL, however, uses a wider rink and is much less physical than the NHL. In 210 KHL games, Kuznetsov recorded 65 goals and 81 assists.

For Trotz, the goal was not so much to develop him as it was to get him adjusted to the NHL game.

That, however, is hard to do with him playing on the fourth line which is where Kuznetsov spent much of the early season.

As explained above, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to have skilled players like Kuznetsov on the fourth line. His skillset is a playmaker, much like Backstrom. Kuznetsov is exceptionally skilled and can use those skills to generate offense for the Caps, even if it’s not him who is doing all the scoring.

It’s really hard to learn how to setup players when there is no one to setup. Giving Kuznetsov fourth line minutes with Michael Latta and Chris Brown as linemates does not help him develop into a playmaking center.

Having said that, Kuznetsov seems to have taken hold of the second-line center spot and we are finally starting to see his potential breaking out.

Tom Wilson

Wilson has taken his turn at right wing on the top line — as has seemingly everyone this season — but for the most part he has been relegated largely to the fourth line. His average ice time per game is one of the lowest on the team at 11:09, higher only than Aaron Volpatti, Michael Latta, Liam O’Brien and Chris Brown.

There seems to be a lot of frustration from the fan base towards Wilson because there has been little if any progression in his game from last season. With only 15 points this season, the only impact he is having on the box score this season is in penalty minutes, where he leads the team.

The problem is that Wilson has spent most of his NHL career on the fourth line. When you are with that line long enough, you begin to act like a fourth liner. The fact that Wilson is willing to drop the gloves is great, but he needs to learn how to contribute offensively as well.

If the team thought Wilson’s ceiling was as a third or fourth-line player, they never would have drafted him 16th overall in the 2012 draft. He showed his offensive potential in the 2012-13 season in the OHL with 58 points in 48 games. That’s the player the Caps wanted, but he is not being given the opportunity to develop.

If Trotz wants him to learn how to put points on the board, he should put him on a line where he could actually accomplish that.

Trotz is a fantastic hockey coach. He has probably already forgotten more about hockey than I will ever know. If we are going to be critical of Oates for how he handled Wilson last season, however, we should also be critical of Trotz this year.

If Burakovsky had so much to learn, he would have benefited more from playing in Hershey than being a healthy scratch for almost 20 games. Wilson is getting more playing time, but he has not been given the opportunity to develop his offensive skills. Instead, he remains on the fourth line and is playing with a fourth-line mentality.

Kuznetsov is the only one of the three who seems to be finally settling in at the NHL level, otherwise Trotz’s development strategy for the team’s prospects this season has left a lot to be desired.

About J.J. Regan

J.J. Regan is a contributor to District Sports Page. He also is a college football and NHL blogger for CSNwashington.com and CSNbaltimore.com and has a master's degree in interactive journalism from American University. Regan follows all DC sports but focuses mainly on the the Caps and college football. You can view his online portfolio at regansports.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheDC_Sportsguy.

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