Tracking an organization's top prospect is like tracking an approaching airplane with the use of antiquated radar. The incoming speed of the aircraft is unknown until it appears as a blip on the radar, only to disappear again for long stretches at a time. Those tracking the plane must gain information about the target's rate of travel while it is on screen, or it will arrive at its destination without proper warning.
Such is the case with Washington Capitals prospect Andre Burakovsky. Rated second among the organization's top 10 prospects for 2013 by HockeyProspectus.com, Burakovsky was selected 23rd overall in the first round of the 2013 NHL draft. The Austrian-born winger who claims Swedish citizenship was rated sixth in the NHL's final draft prospect rankings for European skaters. Even so, his selection by the Capitals was a bit of a surprise.
Case in point: On June 12, 2013, 18 days before the draft, Burakovsky was not mentioned among the six prospects on my list of the Capitals' top draft targets, two of whom were left wings like Burakovsky. Nor was he mentioned in my updated look at the Capitals' draft targets, published exactly one week later.
But there he was, crossing the podium in Newark, N.J., before being greeted by George McPhee and Ross Mahoney of the Capitals. This placed Burakovsky on the radar of Capitals fans for the very first time.
Next, Burakovsky made an appearance at the team's development camp in early July and then again at rookie camp in early September. He also played with the Capitals during the NHL preseason, where he left quite an impression.
Head coach Adam Oates expressed this sentiment to Chelsea Janes of The Washington Post on Sept. 21: "I thought Burakovsky played great. He’s going to be a very, very good hockey player. We sent him back to juniors so he can have a good year and keep learning, learning the language, and all the little things of growing up. We’re very happy with him."
Burakovsky then headed to the OHL, having finally made the decision to play Canadian junior hockey after a two-month deliberation. The 18-year-old spoke about this decision with Victor Fernandes of the Erie Times-News while at training camp with the Erie Otters on Sept. 1 (transcript via Russian Machine Never Breaks):
It was very important for me to make the right decision. I was thinking a lot about it with my agent and my family, what’s best for me and stuff. I talked a lot with Washington, and they think it’s gonna be good for me to play in Erie in the OHL. So I decided to come over because I think I’ll play a lot here and will be a leader for the team. I think it can be really good for my future.
The Otters' regular-season schedule began on Sept. 20, causing Burakovsky to effectively disappear from the Capitals' radar.
He resurfaced at the IIHF World Junior Championships in Malmo, Sweden in late December and early January, where he increased his profile by scoring three goals with four assists. Burakovsky's seven points left him tied for fourth on Team Sweden and tied for 13th in the entire tournament. As a result, I gave him a grade of "B" on Jan. 5 for his WJC performance.
"And like that...he's gone."
Keyser Soze—I mean, Andre Burakovsky—disappeared back to the OHL. While playing for Erie both before and after the WJC, Burakovsky quietly went about his business. And business was good.
Here are Burakovsky's major offensive statistics for the 2013-14 OHL season, with his team and league rank in each category:
The Swedish national finished the regular season with a bang. Burakovsky compiled a goal-scoring streak over the last six games of the season, scoring eight goals and adding seven assists in the process. It was the ninth-longest goal-scoring streak of the OHL season and the second longest on his team.
Burakovsky stayed hot as the postseason began. In fact, he extended his goal-scoring streak to 10 games by scoring in each of the first four games of the opening round of the postseason, tallying six goals in that span. He then began another goal-scoring streak—this one also lasting four games—which began in Game 3 of the conference semifinals and lasted through Game 2 of the conference finals. All told, Burakovsky has scored 10 times in 13 postseason games, becoming one of only two OHL players to record double-digit playoff goals thus far.
By dominating his league playoffs, Burakovsky has become impossible to ignore on anyone's radar, and his rate of approach is rapidly increasing. To that point, Ryan Kennedy of The Hockey News placed Burakovsky atop his list of NHL hot prospects for April 22, which included the following passage:
With 10 goals and 13 points through 12 playoff games, it goes without saying that Burakovsky is doing well for Erie, but you really have to see him live to appreciate the magic of the winger. Burakovsky loves to control the puck and uses his slick hands to weave through traffic, where a lethal wrister can then be employed to finish off the play. Considering he played against men last year in Sweden, it’s probably no wonder he is flourishing against players his own age now.
As more and more pixels are generated to report on his progress and describe his skill set, Burakovsky is cementing his spot as the Washington Capitals' top prospect.
To make this assertion, I must first clarify what constitutes a prospect. To do that, here is a definition of the term, according to HockeyProspectus.com:
For our purposes, a prospect is defined as a player who has 25 or fewer regular season games played during the last NHL season, or 50 or fewer career NHL regular season games played—not the same as Calder Trophy requirements. For example, Mikhail Grigorenko and Louis Leblanc are eligible, while Beau Bennett, Nino Niederreiter, and Brett Connolly are not. The age cutoff is 26 years old, as of September 15th. If a player is in the KHL, he is not considered a prospect if he is signed past his age-22 season. For example, Evgeni Kuznetsov and Yaroslav Kosov are eligible, while Maxim Chudinov and Kirill Petrov are not.
With that definition as a guideline, here is a look at the Capitals' top five prospects, as judged by HockeyProspectus.com. Each player is listed with his statistics from the highest level of competition during the 2013-14 season along with a determination of his prospect eligibility based on the above definition:
|Riley Barber||NCAA||Miami (OH)||38||19||25||44||28||0||Yes|
Technically, Evgeny Kuznetsov is still eligible to appear on this year's list of Capitals top prospects, but it is my opinion that once a player has debuted with the parent club in a meaningful game, he can no longer be considered a prospect. In either case, Kuznetsov should lose prospect eligibility approximately one-quarter of the way through the 2014-15 NHL season. Of course, that statement is based on the assumption that Kuznetsov will start the season with the Capitals and stay in the lineup for the duration of the campaign.
Who is the Capitals' top prospect for the 2014-15 season?
Tom Wilson is already ineligible for Hockey Prospectus' next organizational prospect ranking. Still only 20 years old, Wilson has not come close to reaching his full potential, especially in the offensive zone. Such is the case with a player who ranked 12th on the team in total time on ice among forwards. Despite this limitation, Wilson still managed to rank seventh in the entire NHL in penalty minutes.
The other two prospects on the list—Madison Bowey and Riley Barber—maintained their eligibility as prospects while also having standout seasons.
Fedor Fedin of Russian Machine Never Breaks provided an update on Bowey:
For the past three years, Bowey has played for the Kelowna Rockets of the Western Hockey League. This season, serving as team captain, he scored 21 goals and 60 points, breaking the club records for goals by a defenseman earlier held by the Colorado Avalanche’s Tyson Barrie and recording the third-best season in points by a blueliner. What makes Bowey’s achievement more impressive is the list of the Rockets defensemen he has surpassed (in single season goals and points): Tyler Myers, Alex Edler, Shea Weber, and Duncan Keith, among others.
On the strength of his stellar play, Bowey signed a professional contract with the Capitals on April 2, and he eagerly tweeted the news:
Unbelievable honor to sign my first contract with the Washington Capitals today. Thanks too everyone who's supported me along the way!— Madison Bowey (@m_bows4) April 2, 2014
Meanwhile, Riley Barber was playing major college hockey for the Miami University RedHawks. The team's official website provided a good overview of Barber's season:
Barber, a sixth-round pick (167th overall) of the Washington Capitals in 2012, tied for the team lead with 19 goals while his 44 points ranked second on the RedHawks. The Pittsburgh, Pa., native was a Second-Team All-NCHC selection. In 78 games, Barber has 83 career points (34 goals, 49 assists). He tied for the national lead with four shorthanded goals and his four game-winning goals led the RedHawks.
Barber spent his holiday break playing for Team USA at the World Junior Championships. Although USA was a disappointment, Barber led the team with four goals in five games and finished fourth in the tournament in that category despite being the only player in the top four who played fewer than seven games. On Jan. 5, I gave Barber a grade of "A-" for how he played in Malmo.
The seasons compiled by Bowey and Barber were certainly impressive, but neither player can unseat Burakovsky, who now stands head and shoulders above the rest of the Capitals farm system. Plus, Burakovsky can take the place of Evgeny Kuznetsov for those Capitals fans who had grown accustomed to eagerly awaiting the NHL debut of an elite European-born prospect.
Note: All OHL statistics updated through April 22 courtesy of OntarioHockeyLeague.com unless noted otherwise. All WJC statistics updated courtesy of IIHF.com unless noted otherwise. All NHL statistics updated courtesy of NHL.com unless noted otherwise.