For the second straight season, Nicklas Backstrom’s hip will be arguably the biggest question mark facing the Washington Capitals.
A day before the start of the NHL draft, Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said that Backstrom intends to play “at some point this year” after he finishes recovering from left hip surgery, although he admitted that the timeline is “uncertain.”
“We’ll monitor [his recovery] as we go forward and make a decision down the line during the season,” MacLellan said.
“It’s a hard surgery,” MacLellan added. “Until we see him halfway into his recovery, what mobility, strength he‘s gotten back from it, it’s tough to project for anybody how he reacts and how he comes out of the surgery. So we’re gonna wait and see where he‘s at, how he‘s feeling and how he‘s progressing.”
Backstrom, a five-time All-Star and a key part of the Capitals’ attack at center, dealt with hip discomfort throughout the 2021-22 season. His performance diminished as he tallied 31 points in 47 games and saw a career-low 17:29 of ice time. He elected to undergo left hip resurfacing surgery this offseason — a procedure that was performed in Belgium.
The issue with his left hip isn’t new for the 34-year-old. He previously had arthroscopic hip surgery in 2015 and it flared up at the end of the 2020-21 campaign, causing him to miss the first 28 games of last season. After the team was bounced from the playoffs in the first round by the Florida Panthers, Backstrom admitted that his hip would “never be 100%” again. When the Capitals announced Backstrom’s surgery in June, the team said the procedure requires a “lengthy recovery process.”
“The best thing I want to do is play hockey, and that’s my life,” Backstrom said in May. “Obviously I want to be back. I want to be back to normal, not worrying about this.”
MacLellan said he hopes to fill Backstrom’s spot in the lineup with someone already on the roster, including youngsters Connor McMichael, Hendrix Lapierre and Aliaksei Protas. But he didn’t rule out free agency, which begins next Wednesday.
However, the team does have fiscal restraints, especially considering Backstrom’s cap hit is $9.2 million next season — the second-highest on the team. The Swede is entering the third season of the five-year, $46 million contract he signed in 2020.
“We have to plan for Nick coming back at some point,” MacLellan said. “What we can do is we can give opportunities to our young guys. … It’s not like we go out and sign a $9 million player.”
Backstrom won’t be the only Capitals forward who is recovering from an injury.
Right wing Tom Wilson, who had surgery in May after tearing his ACL in Game 1 of the team’s playoff series, will likely miss the first few months of the season. Meanwhile, the status of left wing Carl Hagelin, whose season ended in March after an eye injury, is still uncertain. MacLellan said the 33-year-old veteran has a checkup in August for a “final determination” of how much his eye healed after surgery.
If health isn’t the biggest question mark heading into the season, then the goaltending situation is — an issue for the team since it let Braden Holtby walk in free agency. MacLellan said restricted free agent goalies Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek, who virtually split the job 50-50 last year, will both receive qualifying offers from the team. The two goaltenders showed flashes last year, especially Samsonov in the playoff series against the Panthers, but both struggled with inconsistency. However, MacLellan didn’t rule out trading or signing a veteran goaltender to bolster the position.
MacLellan was in Montreal Wednesday during his virtual press conference as the Capitals prepare for the NHL draft, which begins Thursday night with the first round. Rounds 2-7 will be Friday. The Capitals own the 20th overall pick, which MacLellan said the team will likely keep instead of trading away in a package for a veteran.
“There’s been a couple of discussions about moving it. If it made sense and we get something that really improved our team, we’d consider it,” MacLellan said. “Other than that, I’d say we’re more likely to make that pick. [We] really like the range we’re in. We think we’re gonna get a player that they really like.”
Most mock drafts have the Capitals selecting a forward after they took defensemen with each of their first three picks in last year’s draft. Some potential players who could be available in that range include center Nathan Gaucher of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, right wing Danila Yurov of Russia’s KHL, center Noah Ostlund out of Sweden’s SHL and left wing Ivan Miroshnichenko of Russia’s VHL.