Andre Burakovsky can step up for the injured Nicklas Backstrom

Andre Burakovsky is going to be thrust into the Capitals lineup as a top-six center, and he is going to succeed.
Sergei Belski/Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

At the start of the year, the Washington Capitals will be without Nicklas Backstrom, the team’s top center.

It remains uncertain how long Backstrom will be out for, but all indications show that Backstrom will miss at least a few games at the start of the year.

Evgeny Kuznetsov is expected to step in and be the top center in Backstrom’s absence. Kuznetsov, the Capitals’ second-line center for all of last season, has been centering Alexander Ovechkin all throughout the season.

At the start of training camp, the Capitals didn’t appear to have an obvious option for the vacant second-line center position with Backstrom’s absence. In fact, the team didn’t even have an obvious third-line center option. Derek Roy was brought in on a professional tryout contract, and he provided Washington with a third-line option. Jay Beagle, Michael Latta and Brooks Laich also have experience at the center position, but none are suited to fill in as a second-line center. They are all better bottom-six options.

There’s one clear-cut candidate that can step in to that second-line center role that is needed in Backstrom’s absence, and that’s Andre Burakovsky.

Burakovsky has seen some time at center this preseason as the Capitals desperately tried to find another option. In the 2014 offseason, the Capitals experimented with Burakovsky as a center, but he ultimately played the majority of his 53 games last season as a wing.

That experimentation continued this offseason. And Burakovsky seems comfortable while playing as a center. He has even said himself it doesn’t matter whether he plays on the wing or as a center.

That’s a good thing, because he may be thrust into the top-six forwards as a center for as ever long as Backstrom is out. While that may seem daunting to a 20-year-old forward with just 53 games of NHL experience, Burakovsky is going to succeed.

Last year, Burakovsky found himself all over the lineup. He saw fourth line minutes, he saw top line minutes. But he never really found a spot in the lineup. As a result, he played with a lot of different line mates.

With each one of those line mates, we see a surprising trend: Burakovsky improved the overall play of each forward he played with.

What we are going to look at is Corsi-For per 60 minutes of play and Corsi-For percentage. Corsi records every shot that is taken on the ice, no matter if it’s blocked, wide of the net or on net. Whatever the outcome of the shot, it doesn’t matter. We can look at this at an individual player’s level. So let’s use Burakovsky as an example. If we look at Burakovsky’s Corsi-For per 60 minutes of even strength five on five play, we’ll see that he had a Corsi-For score of 63.55, according to Hockey Analysis. That means that for every 60 minutes of even strength five on five Burakovsky played, he and whatever line mates he had would generate 63.55 total shots. Corsi-For percentage just takes into account a player’s Corsi-For and their Corsi-Against (which is just the exact opposite of Corsi-For. It records how many shots opponents take when a certain player is on the ice). It makes a percentage out of the overall difference. Anything above 50 percent means that player generated more shots than his opposition, and vice versa if it’s under 50 percent. Burakovsky’s Corsi-For percentage was 54.6 percent.

So now, we are going to look at how forwards performed when they played with Burakovsky last year, and how they performed when they didn’t play with Burakovsky. We’ll look at the five forwards that Burakovsky was partnered up with the most. You’ll notice a trend pretty quickly. This first table shows how forwards performed without Burakovsky. All numbers are from even strength five on five play.

How Forwards Played Without Burakovsky

Player Minutes Played Corsi For Per 60 Corsi Percentage
Marcus Johansson 896:31 57.13 52.7
Alex Ovechkin 997:46 61.28 53.4
Nicklas Backstrom 1010:05 60.89 54.0
Troy Brouwer 773:15 54.24 50.8
Joel Ward 981:15 52.16 49.5

And this second table shows how those same forwards played when they were on the ice with Burakovsky.

How Forwards Played With Burakovsky

Player Minutes Played Corsi For Per 60 Corsi Percentage
Marcus Johansson 222:26 57.19 54.2
Alex Ovechkin 218:04 70.71 54.4
Nicklas Backstrom 212:54 67.92 53.7
Troy Brouwer 180:15 52.26 51.5
Joel Ward 62:11 70:44 59.8

Burakovsky improved every forwards scoring chances, including Ovechkin’s and Backstroms, except for Troy Brouwer. However, you can tell that, because Brouwer’s Corsi-For percentage increased when he played with Burakovsky, Burakovsky ultimately improved Brouwer’s defensive game. But just look at some of those increases in numbers. Burakovsky improved everyone’s overall play.

Now, Burakovsky may have some different line mates this year. He played a lot of time with Troy Brouwer, who is now replaced with Justin Williams. Can Burakovsky find that same chemistry with Williams? More than likely, yes. Why? Williams had the exact same impact on his team mates with the Los Angeles Kings last year as Burakovsky: He improved everyone’s ability to generate scoring chances.

So while the Capitals will obviously miss Backstrom, they are in good hands knowing they have Kuznetsov to slide up from the second-line center position to the first, and that they have Burakovsky to fill the void. As long as Burakovsky doesn’t shy away from his style of play because he’s playing in a different position, the second-year pro should fit right in.