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Nicklas Backstrom’s health is Caps’ biggest question mark
Adjusting to new coach Adam Oates also a preseason focus
George McPhee can't talk about it yet. It's probably best for Washington Capitals fans not to think about it.
But the biggest question coming out of the NHL lockout going into this weekend's training camp and upcoming season might not be answered for a long time. That's the health of Nicklas Backstrom, the No. 1 center who missed almost half of last season with a concussion and whose status is still uncertain.
"I think this team revolves around Nicky Backstrom" right wing Troy Brouwer said. "I think the way he controls the play, controls the puck and when he's out there thinking clearly and making sure he makes smart plays, there aren't many players better than him."
But the Caps, who are well-positioned now and in the near future given the salary cap, might have to again consider playing without him. Backstrom suffered what was originally reported as a neck injury while playing in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League, and this week he's seeing a specialist in Michigan, the team confirmed.
Neck injuries can be problematic, but given Backstrom's history and Alex Ovechkin saying his Dynamo Moscow and Caps teammate felt "dizzy" after falling awkwardly into the boards Dec. 26, there's reason to worry he might have suffered another concussion.
If Backstrom misses any part of a 48-game regular season, it would be a significant setback.
"Nicky's one of our go-to guys in the locker room, go-to guys on the ice. He's a leader on our team. We're going to miss him, without a doubt," forward Matt Hendricks said. "We're going to miss the way he plays and the way he produces and things like that. But we're going to do our best to win hockey games without him if he's not going to be around."
McPhee said Tuesday he wasn't allowed to talk about locked-out players' health until the new collective bargaining agreement was ratified and training camp opened.
The NHL Board of Governors ratified the deal Wednesday, and now it's on to the Players' Association.
Barring a shocking vote by players, camp for the Caps and 29 other NHL teams will open Sunday, and the season will begin Jan. 19. Between now and then, there are plenty of questions to answer, about the schedule, conditioning, the roster and more.
"Who knows? There are going to be a lot of unknowns here. No one knows what this is going to look like: who's in shape, who's not, who gets out to a fast start, who doesn't," McPhee said. "It's going to be like 48 playoff games but really unpredictable. We don't know how people are going to play, and I guess that's what's going to make it exciting."
It's exciting on one hand for the Caps that this is essentially the team. No need to make major changes before the start of the season because the big work is out of the way.
Before the lockout started, defenseman John Carlson signed a six-year deal worth $23.8 million. Before that, Mike Green signed a three-year, $18.25 million contract to stick around, and Brouwer got a three-year, $11 million extension.
"That's nice and we're ready to go. We don't have to negotiate any contracts or anything like that," McPhee said. "Back then people were talking that there was sort of this race to get guys done before the CBA expired but that wasn't really ever the case with us because we had been negotiating with guys for months and with John for a year. Both sides wanted to get it done, but it wasn't done in a rush. It was a pretty thoughtful process and he's happy with the contract, and so are we."
Count Brouwer among those happy to have some long-term security, especially in light of a different world under the new CBA. It's also a different world for the Caps, who must quickly adjust to new coach Adam Oates.
Oates found out at 5 a.m. Sunday that the lockout was ending. By 5:30, he was at the team's practice facility to begin preparing.
Still, Oates' system and learning it is a major unknown.
"It's our third coach in a year and a little bit, I guess," Brouwer said. "It kind of feels like it's a coaching change midseason because of no time to prepare, no time to even talk to him before this past week. ... I think guys are smart in that room; they can hopefully pick up systems pretty quick."
The Caps hope that Backstrom and defenseman Dmitry Orlov (upper-body injury) can be back pretty quickly, as well. And that someone can make up for the scoring that left with winger Alexander Semin.
Aside from perhaps a trade from the team's defensive surplus, don't expect a whole lot of moves.
"I like our team. It's never perfect and you always want to do more," McPhee said. "Ownership always smiles when I say, 'If we had one more guy.' I've been saying that for a long time and I think every GM says it: 'If I had one more guy.'"
One more guy, in a perfect world for the Caps, would be Backstrom. But even with the urgency to start fast in a 48-game season, no one wants to see Backstrom come back too soon.
"He's got to make sure that he's fully healthy and make sure that he's ready to go because we don't want him to come back early just because it's the start of the season and miss more time," Brouwer said. "We're anxious to make sure that he's playing with us, but at the same time we want a fully healthy Nicky Backstrom because he's a phenomenal player when he is."
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