Nicklas Backstrom skated around the ice on Tuesday morning, digging out pucks and crashing the net just like it was any other practice session.
The difference, though, was Backstrom’s light blue sweater — a warning to his teammates that, under no circumstances, was he to be touched.
What has been apparent since the Washington Capitals convened for the start of training camp nearly a month ago is becoming an actuality. Backstrom, who underwent surgery on his left hip in May, will miss the season opener on Saturday against the New Jersey Devils, though an exact timeframe for his return remains in question.
“Nick is progressing very, very well,” coach Barry Trotz said. “Next week, at some point, and I don’t have a day — I’m going to say probably middle of next week — he’s probably going to see his surgeon, and they’re really going to assess where he is and that will probably give us a tighter time frame.”
The Capitals had been bracing for Backstrom, their top-line center, to miss roughly 10 games, the better part of the first month, as he recovered from an arthroscopic procedure to address discomfort he originally began feeling midway through last season.
Aware that the recovery would take four to five months, Backstrom underwent the procedure shortly after the Capitals were knocked out of the playoffs by the New York Rangers with the goal of minimizing the number of games he would be forced to miss.
In recent days, with Backstrom’s steady improvement in practice, expectations changed. General manager Brian MacLellan said Tuesday that he believes Backstrom will miss around the first five games, which could allow him to return prior to the start of, or at some point on, the Capitals’ three-game Western Canada road trip in two weeks.
That additional clarity had an effect on the Capitals’ roster construction, with the team deciding to release veteran center Derek Roy from his tryout agreement and send center Chandler Stephenson, a third-round pick in 2012, to the minor leagues.
Roy had been in the picture as recently as late last week, but the team’s biggest hesitation was what his responsibility would be once Backstrom was able to return. The salary cap situation also played into the situation; with right wing Chris Brown breaking his right hand in a preseason game, his salary is on the Capitals’ books, leaving less room for Roy.
“Part of it was a roster and money decision and part of it was we didn’t have a definitive role for him to play on our team, or we couldn’t come up with one,” MacLellan said. “I mean, did we want to have him as fourth-line center or 13th forward, which might end up happening? In the end, we made a decision not to sign him. I thought he played well, was a good guy and fit well with our group. It’s just the way things worked out for us.”
The Capitals will start the season with Evgeny Kuznetsov as their top-line center, with Andre Burakovsky, Jay Beagle and Michael Latta filling in behind him.
Burakovsky began last season as a center before moving back outside, and both Trotz and MacLellan acknowledged that once Backstrom is able to return, there’s a good chance he’ll revert to the wing.
“We’ll probably deal with that at the time,” Trotz said. “Let’s just get Nick back. We’ll see how we’re playing and who’s healthy before I can answer that, because if I tell you right now, it may not even happen. That’s the way it seems to work.”
One player who should be able to play on Saturday is defenseman Brooks Orpik, who is recovering from July surgery to repair a torn tendon sheath in his left wrist.
Orpik was held out of preseason games as a precaution, and said as recently as this past weekend that although he was aiming for the opener, he was uncertain as to whether that was a possibility.
“He’s pretty well cleared,” Trotz said. “Right now, unless we have a setback, I’m assuming he will [play]. Assumption is not a good word to use when you’re dealing with injuries, [but] with no setbacks, I would expect him to play.”