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Capitals' pick Burakovsky developing rapidly in OHL

by Joe Yerdon

ERIE, Pa. -- When the Washington Capitals selected forward Andre Burakovsky at No. 23 in the 2013 NHL Draft out of Malmo, Sweden, they may have wound up picking their next great superstar forward.

Burakovsky was ranked as the sixth-best international skater by NHL Central Scouting and is playing in his first season with the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League, his first campaign in North America. For some players that transition is difficult.

That hasn't been the case for Burakovsky, who has 32 goals and 68 points in 48 games with the Otters and is leaving a big impression on the Capitals.

Swedish forward Andre Burakovsky, selected at No. 23 by the Washington Capitals in the 2013 NHL Draft, has acclimated quickly to the North American game in his first season with the Erie Otters. (Photo: Getty Images)

"He's obviously adapted very quickly," Capitals general manager George McPhee said. "We're really excited about this player. We think it's one of the best picks we've ever made with where we got him and what he's turning out to be."

Burakovsky could have stayed in Sweden, but instead the Capitals wanted to bring him overseas to get him better acclimated to the North American game. That decision looks good so far.

"It's actually a little better to be here," the 19-year-old said. "Washington wanted me to learn to play on a small rink and I think I'm doing pretty well. I thought I would want to go home after a couple weeks, missing home and stuff, but I think the billet family and the team helped me out really good. I really enjoy being here a lot."

Adapting to the smaller ice in North America from the international-sized sheet in Sweden was one of the concerns. Taking away that extra 15 feet can cause adaptation problems and extend the amount of time needed to develop. In Burakovsky's case, it means learning better defense on the fly.

"In North America there are more stops and starts, and he wants to play with a little more transition with speed," Otters coach Kris Knoblauch said. "So we're just trying to work that into his game and not take away his offensive capabilities, because certainly what makes him really special is his skating and his shooting. When he's coming down on the rush he's very dangerous shooting off the rush. We don't want to take that away, but make him a little more defensively responsible."

Burakovsky was drafted with hopes he'd be an offensive player. At 6-foot-1 and 178 pounds, he has the pro size teams look for from a scoring wing, but even his early success is a surprise to him.

"I heard from some people that the first year is always a hard year," Burakovsky said. "It's like a new kind of hockey. It's a big step, but I didn't realize I would have this many points and do what I do for the team. I'm really glad I'm having this season so I can take the next step. Maybe next year, I don't know."

Though the offense is apparent, Burakovsky has been playing in all situations for Erie. Getting time on the power play and the penalty kill shows his defensive game is there as well, but like anyone his age, it needs some work.

"I think he relies on his teammates giving the puck in transition or when he's got speed opposed to getting in areas where the puck might squeak out or being on the right spot on the forecheck to create a turnover," Knoblauch said. "Certainly those are what we're working on with him."

This season, Burakovsky has played on Erie's second line with 16-year-old center Connor McDavid, a highly touted 2015 draft-eligible prospect. The two have combined for 147 points with McDavid being the main set-up man.

"He's such a great player," McDavid said. "He's hard on the forecheck, he's hard on the backcheck. As a centerman it's always easy. You just give him the puck anywhere and it's going to go in the net."

That kind of ability is something the Capitals could use more of to complement Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. With the way Burakovsky has played in Erie, his future in Washington may not be too far off.

"We see him as a high-end player who will play way up in the lineup," McPhee said. "Certainly top six and maybe top two or three. Playing on a line with him would be fun because you know if you get open for a split second he can find you. But he's also a guy that if you find him he can finish."

Burakovsky got a brief taste of what it's like to play with the Capitals during the preseason. Getting to play alongside the star players in Washington made an impact on him.

"To play a preseason game with the Caps was just amazing," Burakovsky said. "It's a dream come true. I would do whatever it takes to have a chance to show what a guy I can be in the NHL. I'm just looking forward to getting a chance to show what I've got."

Burakovsky mentioned he was a little star-struck getting to play with Backstrom, a fellow Swede, but he could wind up having a similar path to success in the NHL.

"We think he's capable of playing center ice as well," McPhee said. "He might be like Nick where he comes in and plays a little bit along the wing while he adjusts, and then we get him to center ice where we think he can flourish and be more effective. Nick would be the perfect guy to learn from because Nick plays the two-way game as well as anybody in the League does."

With all the positive thoughts and assessments of how Burakovsky has played, the pressing question remains: How far away is he from making the NHL? That's ultimately up to Burakovsky.

"I don't like to put timetables on the young guys," McPhee said. "We allow them to make the decisions for us when they come to training camp with the way they perform. It'll show us whether they're ready or not this year or next year or the following year. But I would expect it won't be too long for this particular player because he's a good one."

Burakovsky will continue playing with the Otters and look to continue building a strong résumé to take with him into training camp next season. For now, he's got Washington's attention from afar.

"The future is bright for the Capitals," McPhee said. "He's got exceptional hockey sense and skill. He's got size and speed and he can shoot the puck, and he really plays a good two-way game and wants the puck in important situations and important times. He's adapted very well and obviously we're thrilled."

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