Before I get started, let’s get this out of the way: I think Andre Burakovsky is an NHL player. I not only think he’s an NHL player, I’d go so far as to argue that Andre Burakovsky is an unfortunate victim of circumstance. I have done so before and I will do so again. Circumstance, unfortunately, deals a hard hand to people and athletes alike every so often.
After Elliotte Friedman confirmed Jesse Puljujärvi’s availability in Edmonton on the NHL Network this morning, rumors about Puljujärvi’s potential involvement in another of Chiarelli’s infamous “one for one” trades have begun to fly. As Brian McLellan has also mentioned his willingness to do a player for player or salary for salary swap involving the Capitals’ forward group, of course fingers would start to point toward the most obvious candidate — fifth year forward Andre Burakovsky, who’s sitting pretty at nine points in thirty-nine games played.
Swapping JP98 and AB65 looks interesting on the surface. Two European forwards, struggling to score consistently at the NHL level, whose GMs have expressed concerns about their growth and development, who could benefit from a change of scenery. On an Edmonton team lacking in scoring, Burakovsky could get the consistent top six time that Jakub Vrana’s beat him to the punch for in D.C. On a Capitals team that has a healthy amount of depth, Puljujärvi could pick up some tricks of the trade from experienced forwards.
Twenty year old Puljujärvi’s contract, like Burakovsky’s, expires this summer, and the Capitals could potentially save quite a few million dollars in signing Puljujärvi to a modest contract off his ELC compared to arguing Burakovsky down from the three million dollars his current deal is paying him.
Burakovsky is a third line player for the Capitals, on the nights he makes the lineup, and while the usual suspects (Lars Eller and Brett Connolly) do their best to make every game an outright bloodbath, he hasn’t found as much success on the scoring front, with a mere eight points (five of them goals) in thirty-four games this season. Already more than halfway to the fifty-six games he played last year, Burakovsky’s scored less than a third of the points he did during the 2017-18 campaign.
Things look grim for Burakovsky, especially given the constant shifting within the Capitals’ bottom six, and the cap crunch (unfortunately, not short for Captain Crunch) looming ahead in the summer of 2019.
Puljujärvi has played up and down the Oilers’ lineup, under coaches Todd McLellan and Ken Hitchcock, and has spent quite a few games watching his teammates from the press box, much like Burakovsky himself. The potential advantages in this deal are purely cost based for the Capitals — Puljujärvi not only costs less, but if he’s worse than Burakovsky, there is enough depth that he could be sent down to Hershey to develop more. The few games Puljujärvi has gotten at the AHL level this year have proven that he is a dominant minor leaguer — the Capitals can afford to give him more time to grow into his game, a reverse of the situation with Andre Burakovsky so many years ago.
They have a chance to right their wrongs — will the Capitals take it?
In order to eat the rest of Burakovsky’s three million dollar cap hit, the Edmonton Oilers (who have $2.28 million USD in deadline cap space) could skate by with offering just Puljujärvi, who is on a maxed out entry level deal that, like Burakovsky’s current contract, expires on July 1st. The Oilers, who are playing a game of hot potato with the NHL roster size, would appreciate a one for one trade, as it would provide no net loss or gain in terms of their NHL roster. Arguably, it would help them, as they’d be able to send down a minor league player to develop longer in favor of a known NHLer (streaky as he is) in Burakovsky.
As a proven NHL quantity, it’s likely the Capitals ask for more than a potential roster player on an entry level contract. However, because of the Aforementioned Cap Crunch, it’s likely those assets come in the form of draft picks rather than players. The Oilers own their own first, second, fourth, sixth, and seventh in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, and the later of their two third round picks (one their own and the other belonging to the New York Islanders). While asking for a first or a second is unreasonable, the Caps could ask for Edmonton’s 2019 fourth rounder, or a pick from the 2020 Entry Draft, well within reason — before Burakovsky’s battles with injuries, he was scoring at a legitimate top six forward late (albeit with good quality linemates, which may be a little tougher to find in Edmonton than they were in Washington).
A Burakovsky for Puljujärvi and pick trade would take on no risk for the Capitals. Burakovsky only made the Capitals lineup sporadically. As a winger with a known ability to score, though that ability comes with asterisks, he could easily find himself playing alongside fellow former Erie Otter, Connor McDavid, and former teammate Alex Chiasson. Burakovsky is older than Puljujärvi, more expensive to retain (and likely to re-sign) than Puljujärvi, and has struggled to make an impact on the Capitals. Maybe a change of scenery will reignite the fire Capitals fans saw in 2016-17.
Puljujärvi was a top four pick only two and a half years ago. There is likely still room to grow, and if he lands in Hershey, he’ll be part of a minor league development system that’s churned out, in recent years, players like Chandler Stephenson, Jakub Vrana, Travis Boyd, and Christian Djoos, among other Capitals roster regulars. Puljujärvi is a cost-controlled, high upside forward that, at best, slots into the NHL roster and begins to produce alongside Eller and Connolly, leading to further trials in the top two lines. At the very least, he goes down to Hershey and benefits from being coached by a prospect development team with recent undisputed success while the Capitals remain exactly where they are with regard to depth.
While Chiarelli’s lack of impulse control may put Puljujärvi on a plane at or before the deadline, barring significant money moves on either side of the deal, could that plane touch down in D.C.? If Burakovsky’s headed out before the deadline, could he go to Edmonton? A low risk, potentially high reward scenario for both sides has a lot of positives, but this is Chiarelli we’re talking about. This would be too reasonable.
(Picture Credit: Perry Nelson – USA TODAY Sports)