The Capitals expect top-line center Nicklas Backstrom to miss the start of the regular season after undergoing offseason arthroscopic hip surgery, Washington Coach Barry Trotz said Thursday. Backstrom practiced with the team on Wednesday, but it was non-contact, and he and Trotz have maintained that there’s no timetable for his return.
“He won’t start the season,” Trotz said. “I know that for sure. I wouldn’t think that’d he’d play through those first four games.”
The Capitals open the season on Oct. 10, and they play their first four games at home before a Western Canada swing through Calagary, Vancouver and Edmonton. Trotz said Backstrom hasn’t had any setbacks, but he’s preparing for a “worst-case scenario” return of Nov. 1 and then working back from there.
“Going down the Canada trip, who knows? He might make that trip, but I’m not sure if he’d get to the point where he could play or not or anything,” Trotz said.
That possible timeline matches what Backstrom hinted at on the first day of training camp, when he said, “it could be opening night, I could miss five games, ten games, I don’t know.” General Manager Brian MacLellan also referenced Backstrom’s recovery causing him to miss part of October.
“It’s uncertain,” MacLellan said on the first day of training camp. “We’re just going to wait to see how he feels, make sure he’s 100 percent. I guess we’re saying now somewhere within those first 10 games, depending on how he feels.”
Backstrom didn’t miss a game last season, finishing with a league-leading 60 assists, and he had 78 points in the regular season, which ranked sixth in the NHL. He also ranked first on the team with 1.96 points per 60 minutes.
His absence has a significant trickle-down effect for Washington. Evgeny Kuznetsov would move up to the first line with Alex Ovechkin, and Andre Burakovsky has been playing and practicing at second-line center throughout the preseason, though Backstrom’s return would likely move him back to the wing.
When Backstrom is expected to return also influences the team’s plans for depth up the middle. Derek Roy, 32, is with the team on a professional tryout contract, his main competition being 21-year-old Chandler Stephenson, who played all of last season in the American Hockey League. With Stephenson on a two-way deal, he could give the team flexibility once Backstrom returns, though Roy is more proven, as he had 22 points in 46 games after being dealt to Edmonton last season in late December.
In a loaded Metropolitan Division, Trotz has emphasized that the Capitals need to get off to a strong start to the season, a charge now complicated by the absence of Backstrom.
“It’s actually probably good that we’re at home for the first four games, where I could control the matchups a little bit versus being on the road,” Trotz said. “We’ve got six of our first 10 at home, so hopefully that’ll help us get to the November date that everybody talks about Backy in there.
“But he might be back before that. We’re looking at the worst-case scenario, then working backwards.”