Evgeny Kuznetsov vs. Andre Burakovsky
What do Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky have in common?
They’re poised to make a splash for the Washington Capitals in their first (full) NHL seasons. Neither is a natural centerman, but both have worked to adapt to the position under coach Barry Trotz. And both are in the running for second-line center.
But who is more qualified for the position? Who will be most successful?
It’s tough to predict offensive totals for rookies like Burakovsky, who shone in the uber-inflated OHL. Scoring runs high, and he was one of the league’s strongest offensive players. That’s not to say Burakovsky won’t be successful, but he had incredible linemates during his time with the Erie Otters. In Washington, he won’t be paired with a handful of scoring machines like Connor McDavid or Dane Fox. Trotz has penciled him in as the team’s 3C, where he’ll probably spend most minutes with Joel Ward and Jason Chimera–both effective, grinding, play-driving wingers.
In the OHL, Burakovsky played left wing. The Otters’ surplus of high-quality centers helped set him up (literally) to score 41 goals in 57 games. His 46 assists were also impressive, and hopefully indicative of his. If Burakovsky centers Ward and Chimera, he’ll be aiming to help Ward and Chimera continue their positive trends in scoring. In the preseason, he’s played his new position with a variety of linemates, even on the first line. Trotz is clearly pleased with the results and all but stated that his position on the team is secure.
So how likely is Burakovsky to steal the 2C spot from Kuznetsov?
Let’s turn to the statistics side of things (my efforts to track down fancy stats in major junior have been far from successful.)
Rob Vollman, author of Hockey Abstract, estimates Kuznetsov will score well above 40 points in his upcoming season (the specifics can be found here.) Kuznetsov made his NHL debut last spring, and put up nine points in 16 games. His offensive totals and position have been hotly debated since he was drafted in 2010. At present, it appears that Trotz will employ Kuznetsov as the team’s second-line center, a position that requires superb setup skills in addition to goal-scoring ability.
While Kuznetsov has been guilty of some egregious defensive lapses, Trotz seems fairly unconcerned with these growing pains. He described himself as “patient” in evaluating the rookies’ progress, adding that “in the long run, they’re going to get better and better as they play more and more.”
Slotting two rookie centers into the opening night lineup appears to be cause for concern. Strength down the middle has been lacking for the Caps in recent seasons. But both players have versatility, albeit in different ways. Each could revert to playing wing. And if Burakovsky struggles with bottom-six minutes at the NHL level, he’s still eligible to play in Hershey. Kuznetsov has multiple, successful seasons at the pro level under his belt, and he spent some of that time as a center.
However, a strong center must be able to win faceoffs. Neither Burakovsky nor Kuznetsov has excelled in winning the draw. If Trotz is correct and patience pays off, both will blossom into faceoff-winning machines. Faceoffs in particular seem to be tricky; Eric Fehr cited them as a reason for his discomfort at the center position. But there’s always the possibility that Burakovsky makes a strong case for the 2C role midway through the season, and he gets bumped up at Kuznetsov’s expense. Stranger things have happened (see: Beagle centering Ovechkin.) For the time being, however, Kuznetsov is arguably the best guy for the job.