One grueling stride at a time, Nicklas Backstrom is answering the biggest question hanging over the Capitals as they prepare to begin training camp on Friday at Kettler Capitals Iceplex.
After undergoing offseason hip surgery, will the Capitals’ 27-year-old center return to his throne as the NHL’s top playmaker? And, if so, when?
“As soon as I started working out again I’ve been progressing every day,” said Backstrom, who has been skating the past three weeks under the watchful eye of Caps strength and conditioning coach Mark Nemish.
“It feels good. I’ve been bag skating after practice and it feels good. The thing is, you’ve got to be patient, you’ve got to take it slow. But right now it feels good, so hopefully it can stay that way.”
The Capitals open the 2015-16 season on Oct. 10 at Verizon Center against the New Jersey Devils and despite his progress, Backstrom remains questionable for the season opener.
According to head coach Barry Trotz, Backstrom is not expected to play in any of the Capitals’ seven preseason games and will need about two weeks of conditioning once he is cleared to join the Caps for full practices. That could push Backstrom’s return to the lineup into late October, although he is not placing a timetable on his return.
“I feel like I’ve got to strengthen my leg up again and it’s going to take a while,” Backstrom said.
“We had a good discussion (with the Capitals). Personally, I don’t want to go out there early and hurt it again. We’re on the same page and we’ll take it day by day and week by week and go from there.”
Backstrom has played in every regular season game for the Capitals in six of his eight NHL seasons, including all 212 regular season games the past three seasons. He led the NHL with 60 assists last season and finished sixth with 78 points.
But after dealing with pain in his hip since last November, Backstrom decided it was time to correct the issue with arthroscopic surgery. Backstrom said he spent the next few weeks recovering, then slowly began rehabbing with range of motion exercises.
“I haven’t gone through anything like that before,” Backstrom said. “It’s really boring to do rehab when you normally do other workouts. It was tough, but I had to do it and I’m glad I did. There’s no pain anymore.”
If Backstrom is unavailable for the start of the regular season, 23-year-old center Evgeny Kuznetsov is expected to take his place on a projected top line with left wing Alex Ovechkin and right wing T.J. Oshie.
Newcomer Derek Roy, who is on a professional tryout contract, could slide into the role of second-line center if he plays well enough in the preseason to make the Caps’ roster.
"I think it’s great," Backstrom said of Roy's arrival. "He's a great player. He’s good with the puck and he can play everywhere. A good addition."
If Roy is unable to make the Caps, Brooks Laich or Andre Burakovsky could fill the role of second-line center, with Jay Beagle and Michael Latta battling for the role of third and fourth-line centers, respectively. Marcus Johansson, who began his career as a center, is expected to begin training camp at left wing.
With Backstrom unavailable for the start of camp, here’s a look at some possible line combinations:
Alex Ovechkin – Evgeny Kuznetsov – T.J. Oshie
Marcus Johansson – Derek Roy – Justin Williams
Andre Burakovsky - Brooks Laich - Tom Wilson
Jason Chimera – Jay Beagle - Michael Latta
If you were Barry Trotz, how would you tinker with these forward lines?