"We knew he was ready to make the next step," the Otters head coach said.
Burakovsky stepped up to the NHL this season with the Washington Capitals, with some healthy scratches and trips to the minor leagues mixed in. He broke out with two goals in the Capitals' victory over the New York Rangers on Wednesday night that gave Washington a 3-1 series leadin their Eastern Conference semifinal.
It showed just how far he has come since his days in Erie.
"I'm very impressed with him — not surprised," Knoblauch said in a phone interview Thursday. "He's very capable of doing that. I think it just took him a while to get accustomed to the NHL and for a young guy I thought he did well right from the start. Now that he's in the playoffs, he's just getting stronger."
A first-round pick of Washington's in 2013, Burakovsky had 41 goals and 46 assists in 57 Ontario Hockey League games last season, playing alongside Connor McDavid. A bit of a surprise to make the Capitals out of training camp, he bounced up and down to Hershey of the American Hockey League but still finished with nine goals and 13 assists in 53 games.
When the playoffs began, Burakovsky was a healthy scratch and didn't get in until Game 4 against the Islanders when Eric Fehr was injured. Lately he has found chemistry on the third line playing left wing with centre Jay Beagle and right-winger Troy Brouwer.
Otters owner and GM Sherry Bassin said Burakovsky finding success as a 20-year-old is a bit of a surprise. But Bassin expected it would happen at some point, as Burakovsky was Erie's best back-checker last season and worked out after games to get stronger.
"I knew he was going to be a heck of a player," Bassin said. "It didn't take long to understand the way he works at his game on and off the ice and then when you see some of the natural talent that he has — I just didn't know it would be this soon."
Burakovsky told reporters in Washington on Wednesday night that he wanted to prove he didn't belong in the press box and should be on the ice all the time. Knoblauch pointed out that Burakovsky's trips to the minors were part of the development curve for a young player.
"They want him to be on the power play, they want him to play a lot of key minutes," Knoblauch said. "Here's a guy, he didn't have that playing time so he spent some time in the American League. It shows it was good for him."
Coach Barry Trotz understood that, and now he's getting a player more comfortable at the NHL level at the perfect time.
"The elements are there of a very competitive, talented young player who's got speed and skill and awareness and a lot courage," Trotz said in Washington.
When Bassin looks at the Capitals he sees Burakovsky's emergence as adding another layer of depth behind the likes of Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.
"(Opponents) know they just can't concentrate on those stars anymore," Bassin said. "Those coaches that are preparing against that team know they have to pay attention to this guy, and they never expected they would've had to."
While his old team prepares for the Ontario Hockey League final, Burakovsky and the Capitals are one victory away from the NHL Eastern Conference final. And while Trotz doesn't know what Burakovsky's long-term "ceiling" is, Bassin thinks everyone is seeing a hint of it now.
"What it really says to me is what a career he's got ahead of him," Bassin said. "This guy's going to be a star."
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