Center Nicklas Backstrom was just another early returnee to the practice rink Thursday morning, one more member of the Washington Capitals tuning up during informal workouts with the preseason two weeks away. There was no contact during the drills and four-on-four scrimmage, nor will there be until the on-ice portion of training camp begins Sept. 17 — just Backstrom wearing a blue jersey, flying around beside his teammates without noticeable complications from the summer surgery threatening his status for opening night.
“I’m feeling a lot better,” Backstrom said later, after leaving the ice while strength coach Mark Nemish ran the other Capitals through timed skating sprints. “I’m happy I can skate right now and happy to be back, but it’s a process and it’s really hard to tell, the timeline around the hip. We’ll see. We’ll take it day by day.”
Despite telling reporters on breakdown day that his 82 appearances during the regular season and 14 more during the playoffs passed without lingering injury, Backstrom said he began feeling “a little bit” of pain in his left hip during the middle of the season, which aligned with Coach Barry Trotz’s estimation after the arthroscopic operation happened in late May. Eventually, Backstrom judged, the prospect of long-term health justified the uncertain recovery timetable.
“And then we just decided to do it,” Backstrom said. “I just didn’t want to have it in the back of my head. Since it was four months in between the season, it was the right decision I think.”
Even now, one month and seven days before the New Jersey Devils come to Verizon Center and the puck drops on Backstrom’s ninth season with the Capitals, the road ahead was foggy. Backstrom ditched the crutches fast and began skating in the beginning of August, but spaced out those training sessions in Sweden, easing back into the exercise. Before arriving in northern Virginia, he hadn’t skated more than three times in a week, but planned to ramp that count up soon, without a definitive schedule in mind, other than “as fast as I can.”
“It was kind of boring to rehab, to be honest with you,” he said. “But at the same time, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do, right? I wish I was healthy, but I’m happy now afterward I did it, and the rehab went well during the summer and I’m able to skate right now. It’s a good time.”
The NHL leader last season with 60 assists, his fourth time with the Capitals reaching that round number, a healthy Backstrom almost certainly will return to the top line beside Alex Ovechkin and either T.J. Oshie or Justin Williams, while also steering the power play and working on the penalty kill. But the 27-year-old also echoed recent comments he made to Swedish-language newspapers at home, making no promises about when that might come.
“We’ll evaluate with the coach, training staff, the doctor, everything,” Backstrom said of when he could appear in a game. “We haven’t really talked about that yet, but we will. Don’t know yet for sure, but it’s a good sign that I’m skating at least.”
For now, Backstrom planned to play it safe.
“It’s obviously not fun to not know, but on the other hand, I’m not in a rush,” he said. “I’m going to be back to 100 percent before I start playing. I’m not going to play on 90 percent. We’ll see how it goes. We don’t know yet.”