There is no timeline for Backstrom’s return, and the Capitals determined there was no need for surgery this summer. MacLellan said rehab is “maybe taking a little longer” than the organization expected, but a return to the lineup for the season opener Oct. 13 against the New York Rangers has not been ruled out.
“It’s important that he gets to as close to 100 percent as possible before we insert him into the lineup,” MacLellan said Thursday. “I think you see, with the compressed schedule that we’ve had over the last couple seasons, that there’s injuries that need to be maintained. Especially if you’re an older player — that you take the time to get it healed properly.”
Backstrom, who is entering his 15th NHL season, was one of several Capitals who dealt with late-season injuries, but he was the only player absent for the start of camp. Captain Alex Ovechkin, who signed a five-year, $47.5 million contract in July, is at full strength. He said he changed his offseason workout routine entering his 17th season to try to keep up as the NHL continues to get faster.
“I’m not going to tell you my secrets, man,” the 36-year-old said. “Game is not changing from last year. I think everything is changing overall. Speed is changing, the rules are changing, so you just have to be ready for it.”
Defenseman John Carlson, who had knee surgery to remove a bone chip, said he is easing his way back into game speed but should be a full-go during the preseason, which begins Sunday against the Boston Bruins at Capital One Arena. Forward T.J. Oshie, who suffered a soft tissue injury late in the season, said it took him longer than he would have liked to heal, but he also is good to go for camp. Center Lars Eller, who had a shoulder injury and a few groin issues, also is back on track.
Eller said he briefly talked to Coach Peter Laviolette about slotting into Backstrom’s spot if his injury lingers, but he emphasized the team is better with Backstrom in the lineup.
“I’ll hold the seat warm for him until he comes back,” Eller said. “But I love that challenge. … Who wouldn’t like to play more? Who wouldn’t want to be put into those situations? I’m so ready for that. I’m so pumped and excited about that being the potential.”
Connor McMichael, 20, also could be poised to land a role if Backstrom’s absence continues. The 2019 first-round draft pick made his NHL debut last season but only got into one game — and played on the wing. He had 14 goals and 13 assists in 33 games for Hershey of the American Hockey League.
“Him getting the opportunity to play last year in Hershey was really beneficial,” Laviolette said. “I thought he did a good job. He finished being their top scorer and at the end of the year was playing really well. ... That experience that you get is all positive for a player like that to come into a camp like this and try to make an impact.”
Center Evgeny Kuznetsov will enter this season in the spotlight. Kuznetsov, who ended up on the NHL’s coronavirus protocols list twice last season, said he is motivated to improve after an inconsistent year that ended with nine goals and 20 assists in 41 games. MacLellan said physically Kuznetsov is in “really good shape.”
“I think we are all looking for a good response from him and a good year,” MacLellan said. “The expectation is that he will have a good year.”
Kuznetsov was thought to be on the trading block in the offseason, but the 29-year-old said he isn’t surprised that he’s back with the Capitals.
“I am happy that I am here, and I’m mentally here,” he said. “That is what is most important to me. It’s not just that I’m here to get paid or I’m here to play hockey and go home and enjoy my life. … When everything is good in your life, you are not moving, you are not growing, you are not getting better. It is fun to see everything, and I hope in 10 years when I enjoy my life I will enjoy this time [when I] remember it.”
Almost fully vaccinated
The Capitals will be fully vaccinated in two days, MacLellan said. The NHL is not mandating that its players be vaccinated this season, but all individuals involved in the league have been “strongly encouraged” to be vaccinated.
Those who are not will be tested for the coronavirus daily. Teams also are allowed to suspend without pay unvaccinated players who are “unable to participate in club activities.”
Capitals defenseman Dmitry Orlov gave an interview in Russia a few weeks ago in which he said he had not been vaccinated. On Thursday, he said he received the vaccine when he returned to the United States ahead of training camp.
“I wanted to vaccinate before the playoffs start, [but] when the news pop up about Johnson & Johnson, they kind of stop giving to people,” Orlov said. “... After season is over, I go to Russia [and] I ask our doctors, ‘Can I get vaccinated in Russia?’ They said no because it’s not working here, so it’s no sense for me to get there. When I get here, as soon as I get here, I get vaccinated, so it’s not a problem.”
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