The Capitals were dealt a blow when center Nicklas Backstrom wasn’t able to start training camp with the team due to a hip injury. Now, with two weeks until the puck drops on the new season, it’s time to start thinking of other options down the middle.
Of course, Washington has been prepared for his potential absence for as long as they’ve known about his rehab stretching into September. And as the days go by, the likelihood of Backstrom taking the ice in two weeks appears increasingly unlikely, especially since general manager Brian MacLellan said last week that Backstrom hasn’t been on the ice much this summer.
At least not publicly, Backstrom has still not stepped onto the ice during Capitals training camp.
“I think we are prepared to be without Nick for a little bit, that wouldn’t surprise me,” center Lars Eller said. “I won’t be surprised if he’s not ready. I’d love to have him back and we’ll be better when he is going to come back, but until then, I’ll be happy to try to keep his seat warm and fill his shoes. I look forward to that challenge.”
Eller figures most likely to step into a bigger role should Backstrom miss time to start the season, something he’s done in previous years when Backstrom or Evgeny Kuznetsov have missed time.
“I like that challenge, and I know I can do it,” Eller said. “But you have to do it almost every night. I think it’s going to be a challenge for the team as a whole to be without one of our best players.”
With Kuznetsov as the team’s de facto top center and Eller likely moving up to anchor the second line, that leaves the bottom six in some flux as coach Peter Laviolette tries to figure out the best line combinations before the team’s opener against the New York Rangers on Oct. 13.
A few options include having some combination of Nic Dowd and a more experienced player like Michael Sgarbossa or Brian Pinho remains in play. If that’s the case, the Capitals will be able to rely on some veteran experience to get them through however long Backstrom misses games. But it’s certainly not the sexiest option.
The clear-cut easiest option to point to is the Connor McMichael plan, which involves putting the organization’s top prospect on the NHL roster. McMichael, who skated with Daniel Sprong and Tom Wilson in the team’s preseason opener, appears to be the odds-on-favorite if the Capitals want to bring up their 2019 first-round pick.
McMichael, 20, led the Hershey Bears last season in points and, by all indications, appears ready to take on the NHL game at some point this season — whether that means in a second or third line role. But is he up to a full season and is that the right move for his development? McMichael turns 21 on Jan. 15.
There are a few other options, like Garrett Pilon or maybe even 2019 third-round pick Aliaksei Protas, but they’d need to have a strong final few days and weeks of camp to put themselves on the NHL roster.
Washington was strapped with injuries aplenty down the middle last season, which forced winger T.J. Oshie to step into the middle and take faceoffs last season. As of now, there doesn’t appear to be any plans to recreate that.
“There hasn’t been any conversations,” Oshie said Tuesday. “I think the coaching staff knows I’ll play wherever they want me to play. I hope we get into some ‘D’ penalty trouble this year and they pull me back on D. That’d be fantastic. I’ve been asking for 14 years to play D for one game, and no one will let me.”
The other issue for the Capitals is the salary cap. They’re snug up against the ceiling of $81.5 million. If Backstrom is ready to start the season, or if the team places him on injured reserve, some tough and likely unpopular decisions will have to be made due to the salary cap.
If the Capitals do put Backstrom on long-term injured reserve, they would be able to go $9.2 million against the cap for as long as Backstrom is out of the lineup. In that scenario, the Capitals could bring up any internal options they pleased, which would include an extra defenseman and potentially two extra forwards.
That move, however, would mean they’d be without one of their best players for the first 10 games and 24 days of the season. The first game Backstrom would be eligible to return for would be at home on Nov. 6 against the Philadelphia Flyers.
While who would play down the middle is no doubt on everyone’s minds, it’s no secret the power play would suffer, too.
“I can’t think of a guy that controls the half wall like Nick on the powerplay in the league,” Oshie said. “There’s a lot of really, really good half wall players, but no one that really moves like him.”
No matter what the Capitals do about Backstrom, and depending on how long it takes for his hip to heal, a decision one way or the other is coming sooner than later.
“Those decisions are tough,” Laviolette said. “In the end, whenever those decisions are made they are usually talked about by a group of people. We’re going to do what’s best for Nick. We’re going to make sure that he’s healthy and that he’s in a good spot, and just make sure that when he does come back he’s fit, he’s ready, he’s comfortable with where he’s at in the process that he’s going through right now.”