Washington Capitals forward Nicklas Backstrom underwent hip resurfacing surgery this offseason, which is a rather complicated procedure. The 34-year-old is coming off a 47-game campaign in 2021-22, with 6 goals and 25 assists, and is expected to miss most of, if not all, of the regular season in 2022-23.
Backstrom has stated he intends to play this season, but until then, he will leave a massive hole down the middle. He has been the number one center for the Capitals for a number of years now, and his absence on special teams will be evident. He has been viewed as one of the key options on the first power-play unit and has been utilized on the penalty kill from time to time.
Can the Capitals Compete at the Same Level Without Backstrom?
The easy answer is yes. The Capitals have made some solid additions up the middle and have some young guns ready to make a real impact with increased roles in the NHL. Evgeny Kuznetsov will likely be getting most of, if not all, the first-line ice time during the season. He is coming off of a 78-point season through 79 games, while newly signed Dylan Strome will either take that spot away from him or become a mainstay in the top-six as the second-line center. Strome, 25, is coming off of a 22-goal, 26-assist performance through 69 games with the Chicago Blackhawks.
Backstrom has been a leader in Washington ever since joining the team in 2006, when the Capitals drafted him fourth overall at the draft. Through the years, he has become one of the best players to ever wear a Capitals jersey. His playmaking ability shows through season after season, as he leads the franchise in assists with 747. He’s also added 264 goals, totaling 1011 points and placing him second in all-time Capitals scoring, behind none other than Alex Ovechkin.
His offensive ability is a massive loss that the Caps will expect others to pick up on, but aside from scoring, Backstrom has solidified himself as a leader off the ice. During the 2010-11 season, he was named an assistant captain and has had the “A” on his sweater ever since.
Lars Eller and Nic Dowd will likely fill out the third and fourth-line centre positions, and there is a good chance Alexei Protas earns an opportunity to crack the bottom-six right out of training camp, although I think the Capitals trust Dowd and Eller just a bit more right now.
Eller was seventh in Capitals scoring last season, with 13 goals and 18 assists through 72 games and was a huge part of the penalty kill. Dowd, on the other hand, wasn’t utilized as much on the penalty kill but did spend some time on it. He finished the season 12th in Capitals scoring, with 10 goals and 14 assists through 64 games, which was a career year for the 32-year-old.
All things considered, the Capitals look like a team that can still compete at a very high level without Backstrom in their lineup. It’s gonna hurt, and it’s something the team will have to get used to for the first bit of the season, but I think they’re strong enough to get it done.
Capitals’ Options in the Farm System
When you look at the Capitals’ prospect pool, it isn’t as strong as some of the other pools around the NHL, and unfortunately, there isn’t anyone quite ready to make the jump to the NHL to cover one of the four open centremen positions just yet. Twenty-five-year-old Damien Riat was drafted by the Capitals back in 2016 and currently plays in the NL (Switzerland), where he is expected to play for the entirety of the 2022-23 season. After spending some time in the minors with the Hershey Bears and then being loaned to Lausanne HC of the NL, it’s safe to say he won’t be ready for NHL action any time soon.
When you look at the Hershey Bears (AHL), Bear Hughes is a name that pops up as a young guy that could be ready for a shot in a few years. The Capitals selected him 148th overall in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft but never signed him. Instead, the Bears inked him and kept him around the organization. Hughes won’t be ready for NHL ice for at least a couple of seasons, so he isn’t a guy the Capitals will turn to either.
The point is, the Capitals lack the centremen depth that some fans may want in the case Backstrom doesn’t come back at all this season, but I don’t think there’s any reason to worry. If all else fails and injuries start to hurt the team a bit more than originally expected, moving a couple of guys in and out of their secondary positions won’t hurt. McMichael is a guy that can play center and wing, so he would likely be the first option.
Should the Capitals Trade for Another Center?
Washington should be safe to go into the season with the roster they have right now. That said, it never hurts to bolster a position in your lineup. If Strome doesn’t pan out, and/or Kuznetsov doesn’t have a hot start, there are plenty of centremen who have come up in trade rumors this offseason, including Jonathan Toews, who may be a little pricey for the Capitals, but could work. There is also J.T Miller, who has been in and out of the rumor mill since the season ended. I would love to see Miller join the Capitals, but I don’t like the idea of giving up too many young assets for a player that may not re-sign after the conclusion of the season.
At the end of the day, the Capitals have some flexibility. They have a really strong team going into the 2022-23 season, even without Backstrom. They could bring in someone new, like Miller or Toews, but both players would cost too much. The Capitals are a playoff team and shouldn’t have to make any major moves to change their direction. Losing Backstrom is a massive blow, yes. But the team has done a fantastic job of filling out their depth. Should the team have a bad start, maybe their direction changes slightly and they consider making a cost-effective move, but I have faith they will return to the playoffs and win a series for the first time since 2018.