Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan introduced Spencer Carbery as the team’s new head coach on Thursday, but the biggest news to come out of the press conference may have been when GMBM spoke to media on the side after.
MacLellan revealed that Nicklas Backstrom will be given an opportunity to continue his career next season, depending on how the franchise leader in assists looks during training camp. Backstrom returned to the lineup mid-season after hip resurfacing surgery, but has since struggled to return to his previous form.
“We’ve had a couple conversations about where he is health-wise,” MacLellan said, per NHL.com’s Tom Gulitti. “I think he’s deserved a chance to see what he can do in the offseason and come into camp and see where he’s at health-wise. It’s a major surgery, so I don’t know that anybody knows exactly where he’s going to be.”
MacLellan previously suggested that the Swedish center was at a crossroads during his Breakdown Day interview in mid-April.
“I think it’s frustrating in that I don’t know how much better it’s going to get,” MacLellan said then. “I haven’t seen any other players do it, recover, and get back to the level they thought they were at before. I don’t know where that ends up with the offseason training. He’s going to have to make a decision on his career where he thinks he’s at.”
MacLellan added, “I don’t know what could happen in the offseason to make it significantly better.”
After struggling to skate without pain or play with his children, Backstrom ultimately moved forward with hip resurfacing surgery in June 2022 to try and improve his quality of life and hockey career. Backstrom’s dedication during his six month rehab was highlighted in an ESPN story. The Super Swede was in a swimming pool three days after the surgery, walking on crutches within two weeks, and lifting weights within two months. Four months after his surgery, Backstrom was back on the ice, and on January 8, 2023, he was back on the team, suiting up against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
While Backstrom’s comeback to the team was inspiring, the numbers he put up in games were concerning, as Nicke posted his worst season as a pro.
Backstrom, in his age-36 season, tallied 21 points (7g, 14a) in 39 games, but six of those seven goals and 11 of his 21 points came on the power play, where skating issues are not highlighted as much. At 5v5, the Capitals were outscored 27-14, out-attempted (476 to 429), and out-chanced (247-200) when Backstrom was on the ice. Backstrom finished the year with a career-low 34.2 goals-for percentage and a career-worst plus-minus of minus-25.
Depending on how his offseason training goes, Backstrom could be back in the top six or end up contributing in a different role altogether next season — perhaps lower down in the lineup at 5v5 while continuing to be featured on the power play. If he still looks off, then a bigger decision like retirement (Backstrom LTIR’ing until the end of his contract) may need to be made.
In his own end-of-season comments, Backstrom signaled his intention to play next year.
“It’s not ideal to come in mid-season and a big surgery like that,” he said in April. “You missed a lot and you’re trying to catch up. It’s not ideal. I mean I’m optimistic about next year and like, have a good summer, the first really good summer in a couple of years, and be ready at the training camp and be a part of that. That’s what I’m looking forward to.”
Heading into the 2023-24 season, the Capitals are in a state of flux and what ends up happening with Backstrom will likely play a huge role on the team’s ceiling.
Headline photo: Alan Dobbins/RMNB
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