While Nicklas Backstrom has been a key member of the Washington Capitals’ core since he arrived in North America in 2006, there are some questions if he’s going to be able to continue to be a part of the roster going forward.
As the team held its final media availability before breaking up for the summer on Monday, Backstrom told reporters that his hip, which limited his availability this past season, would “never be 100 percent” again, and that he had some decisions to make about how to proceed (from ‘Besides aging core and goaltending, Capitals must answer injury questions’, The Washington Post, May 15, 2022).
Backstrom underwent surgery on his hip back in 2015, and the injury became an issue again at the end of the 2020-21 season. He underwent rehab last summer, and missed the first part of the campaign as he built himself back up to playing shape, not appearing in a game until December. Despite the rehab, the hip continued to be an issue for Backstrom, as he wasn’t the same player this season as he had been in the past, recording six goals and 25 assists in 47 regular-season games, along with a pair of goals and four assists in Washington’s six-game playoff loss to the Florida Panthers.
In his post-season talk with the media, Capitals’ general manager Brian MacLellan said Monday that it wouldn’t be sustainable for Backstrom to undergo the same therapy to play another season, so now what happens will likely determine how the Capitals move forward as an organization.
“We have some decisions to make,” Backstrom said. “Those decisions aren’t finalized yet, so we’ll take it day by day.”
Backstrom’s Options for the Future
With the offseason here and Washington off for the summer after its fourth straight first-round exit, there would seemingly be a couple of different directions for Backstrom to go to either try and continue playing or elect to call it a career.
The first option with the rehab program and keeping the status quo doesn’t seem to be a realistic option, as continuing it was ruled out by MacLellan.
Another option would be to see if there is another procedure available to improve the condition of his ailing hip, but that will cost him playing time next season without a guarantee of improvement. It would at least hold open the door for a possible return to the lineup at some point in the future, but clearly would involve another lengthy recovery for Backstrom.
Another option for Backstrom would be to call it a career, and when asked by reporters if that was a possibility, MacLellan didn’t directly answer the question. Backstrom, who just passed the 1,000-point mark this past season, has been a key part of the Washington core and would mark the third of Washington’s four “Young Guns” from back in 2008 to leave, along with Alexander Semin and Mike Green, leaving only Alex Ovechkin remaining for what was the core of the first playoff roster of the Ovechkin era.
Certainly, it appears that Backstrom will miss significantly more time if he decides to see if surgery can extend his career, or if the injury becomes too much to be able to have a productive career and post-career to continue. Either way, the Capitals will have a hole to fill for at least the time being, but also a bit more flexibility in how they do so.
Cap Ramifications of the Decision
Hockey-wise, the decision will impact where the Capitals go this offseason. Clearly, losing one of their top centers will become an issue in the roster, but at the same time, Backstrom’s three years remaining on a five-year deal that pays him $9.2 million a season for a skater who likely couldn’t come close to matching that value would generate some options.
Certainly, if the NHL allowed the redoing of contracts for cap purposes, this would be a prime candidate, as Backstrom certainly showed he could still play in the league despite rehab, but also not the same player he was before. But with no option to redo deals available, as Washington’s second-biggest cap hit, it’s difficult to justify his spot at that price.
With Backstrom spending his entire career with Washington, a hockey trade seems off the table, although it could become possible if it is a matter of just taking his contract off the books and sending him to a club that needs to meet the salary floor, as has been done previously with players who are no longer skating but not yet retired.
Should Backstrom elect to undergo another procedure on the hip, it certainly should keep the 34-year-old off the ice for the bulk of next season, allowing Washington to exceed the salary cap by that $9.2 million figure if they wanted while he is on Long Term Injured Reserve (LTIR).
Even if Backstrom elects not to come back to play next season, but he and the team want to keep the options open, he could also be simply placed on LTIR, allowing Washington to exceed the cap.
And, if Backstrom decides that a return to the NHL isn’t in the cards, he could simply retire, and since his multi-year contract was signed before he turned 35, it will simply come off the books completely and Washington would be free to use that space.
Decision Will Impact Washington’s Direction
At the very least, it seems that Backstrom will be unavailable for a good portion of next season, and that would open a lot more cap flexibility for Washington this summer. Teams may exceed the salary cap by 10 percent – slightly less than Backstrom’s hit – over the summer, and so the Capitals, who have been tight to the cap the last few seasons, could actually get to be more of a buyer this summer as the team tries to get younger and faster.
The loss of Backstrom also may require the Capitals to shore up the depth down the middle, and a player like Lars Eller who may have been an attractive contract to move under different circumstances may stay instead to avoid thinning out the key position. Washington already had used Connor McMichael for most of the season at center, and Backstrom’s departure could mean he moves up the depth chart, and Hendrix Lapierre, who played well in his first taste of the NHL back in the first part of the season before being returned to junior, could also make the jump to try and fill the void.
What already was seemingly going to be an offseason of change in Washington looks like it may become a much more intriguing one as a Capitals mainstay could be saying goodbye to the NHL.
Author of a pair of Washington Capitals books, Transition Game and Red Rising, as well as a book on the American Hockey League, Chasing the Dream. Covered the Capitals and the NHL for the Washington Times, AOL Sports, Sporting News, SB Nation, Newsday, Tampa Tribune and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.