LAS VEGAS – Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Nate Schmidt is the one-who-got-away for the Capitals, the player Washington lost in the expansion draft last summer. During Sunday’s media day ahead of Monday’s Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals between the Capitals and Golden Knights, Vegas General Manager George McPhee revealed that Washington attempted to make a trade for Schmidt immediately after he was swiped.
“We made our selection and then [Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan] called and asked if there’s any way we could do a deal for him to get Schmidt back, and I said, ‘I don’t see anything, but we’ll try to come up with something to give you a chance to say no,’ ” McPhee said. “So we made a proposal that I didn’t think would work, and it didn’t work because our guys like Schmidt. So we overreached on the ask, and that’s the way it went.”
MacLellan said what Vegas asked for Schmidt “didn’t make sense.” MacLellan might have offered to trade skilled winger Marcus Johansson; the Capitals ultimately dealt him to New Jersey later in the summer because of salary cap constraints. Johansson finished with 24 goals and 34 assists during the 2016-17 season. As Washington’s former longtime general manager, McPhee would have been especially familiar with the Capitals’ roster.
Losing Schmidt stung for Washington because he was projected to play in the Capitals’ top four defense corps going into this season. With Vegas, he’s averaged more than 22 minutes per game, a top-pairing blue-liner who often plays against opponent’s top forwards.
“We had just got him to the point, development wise, where he was going to expand his role, and we unfortunately had to lose him,” MacLellan said earlier this week. “We were in a tough situation where we were going to lose someone we liked.”
Backstrom feeling good despite hand injury
A recurring question from the Eastern Conference finals was the status of Nicklas Backstrom, the Capitals’ star center who has been dealing with a nagging right-hand injury since Game 5 of the second round. But Backstrom, who returned for the final four games against the Tampa Bay Lightning, is firmly back in the lineup ahead of Game 1.
If the hand is still bothering him — and his right index finger was very swollen at the end of the previous series — Backstrom insists it is no different from the nicks every player has this time of year. But Backstrom did admit Sunday that the injury has forced him to make subtle adjustments to his approach.
“I’m not going to lie: You have to think a little different,” Backstrom said. “But I am feeling good right now, and I’m ready to play.”
For all of Backstrom’s physical gifts — pinpoint passing, stickhandling through traffic, an underrated shot — his greatest strength is his mind, the way he sees the ice and makes snap decisions with the puck. Backstrom did not say how the injury has shifted his play, but it is likely that his mind and body are not 100 percent in sync.
Either way, his presence on the ice is a major boost for the Capitals. Teammate John Carlson, speaking from the perspective of a defenseman, said one of Backstrom’s biggest contributions is his ability to carry the puck through the middle of the ice and into the offensive zone. Backstrom has centered a line with Jakub Vrana and T.J. Oshie throughout the playoffs and is also the quarterback of the Capitals’ lethal top power-play unit.
“It’s so much harder to defend when [the puck] is in the middle of the ice because it can go anywhere,” Carlson said. “It can stay there or go to the wings, and for me it’s much easier to play something if the puck gets kicked out wide.”
Read more on the Capitals: