Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom is nearing a return from the hip injury that’s sidelined him for the first two months of the 2021-22 NHL season. Once he does finally suit up for Washington, however, it won’t be in his usual spot alongside Alex Ovechkin on the first line.
Evgeny Kuznetsov has held down the top center spot in Backstrom’s absence and the results have been impressive. According to Left Wing Lock, Washington’s first line of Ovechkin, Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson has racked up 20 goals this season, tied with the Calgary Flames’ Matthew Tkachuk-Elias Lindholm-Johnny Gaudreau trio for the most goals scored by any line in the NHL this season.
Head coach Peter Laviolette joined 106.7 The Fan’s Sports Junkies on Wednesday morning and made clear he doesn’t want to mess with what’s working.
“The way that Kuznetsov and Ovechkin [are playing], I’m probably not going to break that up,” Laviolette said. “At this point for me, Kuznetsov and Ovechkin have been too strong the entire year. I think they’re one of the top duos and whoever’s been on that wing, whether it’s Wilson or [Aliaksei] Protas whoever it might be, I think it’s done really well.”
Instead, Backstrom will likely join wingers Conor Sheary and T.J. Oshie on the second line, bumping center Lars Eller down to the third line. Injuries and a series of COVID cases have forced the Capitals to rotate through myriad of lineups — particularly at center — while Backstrom has been out. The veteran's return should give Washington some stability at the position.
When asked during morning skate Wednesday whether Backstrom would return for their game against the Chicago Blackhawks, Laviolette didn't offer a straight answer other than to say he'll confer with trainers.
In order to work him up to game speed, Laviolette has been pushing the Capitals to play with more energy at practice.
“We’ve had a couple of good practices, tough practices, where we were grinding and battling to try and tune our game up a little bit and get back on track but also knowing that it would be good for Nick,” Laviolette said. “Two days ago, it was almost like a day of a mini training camp where we just went through some of the basics. It was partly for us as a tune-up, but it was also for Nick just to get him going because it’s his first maybe three or four times where he’s grinding on the practice and battling and competing hard and he looked really good out there.”
The Capitals play the Chicago on the road Wednesday before a date with the Winnipeg Jets north of the border Friday and a home game against the Los Angeles Kings on Sunday.