FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. – You could hear the uncertainty in general manager Brian MacLellan’s voice, crackling over the telephone Thursday afternoon, considering the health of center Nicklas Backstrom. One month ago, the Washington Capitals’ alternate captain underwent arthroscopic hip surgery, a minimally invasive procedure to fix a lingering issue. At the time, the team-issued news release expressed confidence that Backstrom would be “completely healthy prior to the start of the 2015-16 regular season.”
But such operations often carry unpredictable timetables for recovery. A 2009 study of 28 hockey players found “the average time to return to skating/hockey drills was 3.4 months.” An Arlington orthopedic surgeon, who performed more than 250 hip arthroscopies last year, said athletes sometimes need upwards of nine months to regain full strength. Backstrom, it seems, will fall somewhere in the middle.
“He should be more than likely…he’ll start the year, I’m counting on,” MacLellan said. “I think his hip surgery went well. He’ll be close to starting the year, it looks like…I know [from] talking to the trainer and the doctor that everything’s gone well, they expect the rehab to go well. It’s hard for me to predict. Optimistically, I’d say I’m hoping he’s coming back for training camp.”
The injury, which reportedly nagged Backstrom throughout the season, despite his breakdown day insistence that he was not banged up during the playoffs, would also not press the Capitals into signing free-agent centers as insurance, MacLellan said. Both Jay Beagle and Eric Fehr are slated to enter unrestricted free agency on July 1, but MacLellan has been vocal about his desire to re-sign both, regardless of Backstrom’s health.
“I don’t know if that would be a reason to sign or not sign,” he said. “I anticipate Nick playing most of the year next year and I don’t think that’ll affect whether we need to sign an extra center or not, or bring that one of our UFA guys. Those are independent decisions.”
>> Earlier this week, the NHL announced a salary cap ceiling of $71.4 million, slightly higher than the Capitals had expected.
“I think there was a little concern that it might come in a little lower, but I like the number,” MacLellan said. “It came in a little higher. I don’t know if it helps our situation out a lot, but it’s good that it came in at that level.”
They have 16 active NHL players under contract, with $20,071,541 to spare, according to GeneralFanager.com. Restricted free agents Marcus Johansson, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Braden Holtby will all receive new deals, and MacLellan hoped to enter next season $1 million below the ceiling as an injury cushion. During the summer, teams can go 10 percent above the maximum, but must return to the ceiling by the end of training camp.
“That could change a little bit, depending on circumstances,” MacLellan said of the injury cushion, “but that’s where we are at the moment.”
>> Last year’s first-round pick, Czech forward Jakub Vrana, arrived in the American Hockey League this spring with few organizational expectations, except to get his feet wet with the Hershey Bears and set himself up for a full-time role next season. Instead, Vrana leapt into the starting lineup, notched five assists over the final three games and had six more during 10 postseason games.
“I would expect him to have a good camp,” MacLellan said. “Ideally, I don’t think we’d want him on the roster, unless he really made it difficult for us to not have him on there. I’d anticipate him being in Hershey for next season.”
Responding to a general question about prospects moving into the NHL next season, MacLellan said defensemen Nate Schmidt and Dmitry Orlov will likely open the year in the starting lineup, and the Capitals will “take a good look” at goaltender Philipp Grubauer. Grubauer recently signed a $750,000 one-way contract, paving the path toward becoming Holtby’s full-time backup and seemingly putting Justin Peters on the outs, since both would need to pass through waivers to reach Hershey, and the Capitals would be more worried about losing Grubauer than Peters.
Asked whether he had explored trade options for Peters, MacLellan said he preferred to keep three one-way goalie contracts for now and evaluate during training camp.
“I think we’re going to let it play out,” he said. “I think everybody’s comfortable with what Grubi did when he got called up. Peters had a difficult situation that he played through. We’ll see how we start with camp and how everybody’s doing, and we’ll make our decision based on that.”
>> MacLellan said he supported the recent overtime rule change approved by the board of governors, which swapped the five-minute four-on-four period for three-on-three.
“I think it’s going to be exciting for the game,” MacLellan said. “I think more games are going to be decided in overtime. I think it’ll be really entertaining for the fans. I think it’s a good thing. I think it should be a good thing.
“In the manager’s meeting, that was the general point that we wanted less games decided by a shootout, to get the percentage of them settled that way down, and I think the three-on-three will do that.”