- The Washington Times - Monday, September 22, 2014

When Andre Burakovsky returned home to Sweden following the Washington Capitals‘ development camp in mid-July, he approached his coaches with the Malmö Redhawks with a proposition.

The Capitals had asked him to spend a significant amount of time during the week-long camp as a center — a position that Burakovsky, despite his adept puck-handling skills, had rarely played. Burakovsky, then, wanted to see if his Swedish second-league team could make a similar adjustment.

“I think I handled it pretty good,” Burakovsky said. “I could feel that I could compete against these guys pretty easy, so yeah, I think it worked out pretty good to play back home at practice, and I think I can take the next step.”

Burakovsky, the Capitals‘ top pick in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, now has the opportunity to do so. The 19-year-old will receive an extended audition as a center throughout Capitals training camp, especially with the team in need of a player to take the reins as its second-line center.

Such responsibilities may be a bit overwhelming for Burakovsky, but on Sunday, in the Capitals‘ preseason opener, he seemed more than adept at handling them. He scored the lone goal in a 1-0 victory over Buffalo at Verizon Center, burying a wrister off a one-timer from Jason Chimera from the right faceoff circle 13:14 into the first period.

The Capitals will continue to give Burakovsky such opportunities — and, of course, give him plenty of others he can learn from, as well.

“He’s getting better and better,” said first-year coach Barry Trotz. “Just watch him. One thing I like about him is he’s got a lot of joy in his game. It’s hard to explain what that joy means, but he just loves to play — and he actually can at a high level. I think he’s enjoying just getting back. He had a little injury during the summer. He got over that, and I think you’re seeing a young player taking the next step in his development right now.”

Burakovsky, taken by the Capitals with the No. 23 overall pick last year, spent all of last season with Erie of the Ontario Hockey League. There, he had 41 goals and 46 assists over 57 games, then had 10 goals and three assists as his team advanced to the Western Conference finals.

His biggest concern, though, has always been his play in the defensive zone. The switch from left wing to center over the summer thus brought different defensive responsibilities — playing deeper, protecting the slot and breaking out of the zone — but has, in many regards, also simplified things.

Among the players Burakovsky faced off against this summer were Detroit’s Gustav Nyquist, who once played for Malmo’s junior-league team, and the match-up left Burakovsky further convinced he could handle the transition.

“It’s not coming over one practice,” Burakovsky said. “I’m just trying to learn it and take the time. It can take weeks, but I’ve just got to learn it so I can play center because it’s probably going to be better for me there.”

Part of Burakovsky’s transition will also depend on where the Capitals ultimately decide he will play. Unlike North American players, Burakovsky is eligible to play in the AHL, which is generally closed to anyone under 20 years old to protect the sanctity of the junior leagues.

Like Tom Wilson last season, the Capitals will have to weigh whether keeping Burakovsky with the team, versus assigning him to the Hershey Bears, will be better for his overall development. Wilson played in all 82 games for Washington in 2013-14, tallying 7:56 of ice time per game.

“We want to make sure [Burakovsky] becomes the best player we can make him,” said general manager Brian MacLellan. “The coaches are going to have input. I’m going to have input. We’re gonna let the scouts have input, and we’ll see what’s best for him. If he can get enough ice time up here and he’s handling it well, he’ll get a good look.”

To better prepare himself for the opportunity to play with the Capitals, Burakovsky spent much of the offseason focusing on his conditioning and his nutrition. He cut out eating fried food and sprinted up hills to improve his quickness.

Since his first development camp, weeks after he was drafted by Washington, Burakovsky added 12 pounds and lessened his body fat percentage. When he reported for the start of rookie camp two weeks ago, Burakovsky weighed in at a lean 197 pounds.

Now he’ll have an additional two weeks of training camp to state his case for making the main roster. With the transition to center in progress, the transition to the NHL will be next.

“I don’t know how it is in the NHL,” Burakovsky said. “It’s probably going to be different. It’s probably going to take a couple games before I feel real comfortable to play up there, but yeah, I think I’m ready to take the next step to the NHL, and I think it could do good for me.”

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