While we’re bringing up age — and with these two, at this stage, it will come up often — it must be pointed out that when his five-year, $46 million contract ends after the 2024-25 season, Backstrom will be 37. When Ovechkin’s five-year, $47.5 million deal ends after the 2025-26 season, he will be 40.
They are, of course, not just the Capitals’ aging pieces. They are the franchise’s players for the ages, the Batman and Robin who changed a city’s relationship with an entire sport. They are here for the remainder of their careers, and before expectations and goals for the upcoming season — their 15th skating alongside each other — are laid out, be reminded how special it has been and will be to watch them side-by-side, night after night and year after year.
Okay, that was fun. Now the important part: Can two guys in their mid-30s be central pieces of a Stanley Cup-contending team? Can they remain that as they push closer to 40?
That’s the bet made not just by General Manager Brian MacLellan but by his boss, owner Ted Leonsis.
“Nick was probably our best player last year; Ovi had a good year,” MacLellan said as camp opened Thursday. “… Nick’s been our most consistent player every year. His numbers stay the same; you don’t see a drop-off. Ovi, he’s chasing goal records.
“They do the right things. They play the right way. I think we can finish their careers up in the right way — as a winning organization.”
Which is what they have been and what they expect to be. Since Backstrom’s rookie year of 2007-08, only Pittsburgh has more regular season wins than Washington — 635 to 632, according to hockey-reference.com. Take away shootouts, and no team has more than the Caps’ 572 victories in that time.
Nos. 8 and 19 have been the engines behind those results. Backstrom has 258 career goals; Ovechkin has assisted on 105 — or 40.7 percent — of them. Ovechkin’s sixth-in-history goal total is 730; Backstrom has assisted on 266, or 36.4 percent. Since Backstrom’s rookie year, the Capitals have totaled 3,387 goals. Either Backstrom or Ovechkin has scored 936 of them — or 27.6 percent. That’s right: Two players over a 14-year span have accounted for more than a quarter of the team’s goals.
What a partnership. What a run. That the span finally included a Cup means Ovechkin and Backstrom don’t have to listen to paeans followed by, “Yeah, but …”
Oh, except: Yeah, but since they won that Cup in 2018, they haven’t won a playoff series. They went out in seven games to Carolina in 2019, in five to the New York Islanders (and former coach Barry Trotz) in the pandemic-bubble of 2020 — a regression that cost then-coach Todd Reirden his job — and then in five again to Boston this year.
Every day, the Cup retreats further into the past. Every day, Ovechkin and Backstrom grow older. And with exactly zero playoff success since the accomplishment that relieved all the pressure, there’s pressure to show that the organization not only made the right decision emotionally to sign them to forever contracts — which was obvious — but that it made sound hockey decisions.
“We just move forward,” Ovechkin said. “What happened a year ago, two years ago, you can’t change it, right? You just move on and try to get better next year.”
Getting better, as their 20s become more distant memories, would seem difficult to do. Ovechkin’s 24 goals in a shortened 2020-21 season left him outside the top 10 in the NHL in that category for just the third time in his career. A big reason: He missed time with a leg injury and was hampered into the playoffs. Backstrom’s hip injury limited him in the playoffs, and now the team has no idea whether he will pull on the No. 19 sweater for opening night, Oct. 13 vs. the New York Rangers.
And they’re not the only ones to watch. T.J. Oshie turns 35 in December. Carl Hagelin is 33. Lars Eller is 32. Shoot, even John Carlson is 31. Each is a central piece expected to contribute.
That all leaves second-year coach Peter Laviolette — finally able to meet with his team however he pleases, what with the NHL’s relaxed covid protocols — looking at not just how he manages his lineup on a given night but how he manages them over 82 games.
“We’re constantly looking at that with regard to minutes and back-to-backs and scheduling and stuff like that,” Laviolette said. “But in the same sense, these guys are competitors. They want to play. They want to be on the ice, and that’s where we want them as well.”
Except that’s not where Backstrom opens his training camp. MacLellan said there’s no expectation that the Swede will need surgery. But the fact of the matter is that a hip injury at 33 sounds weightier than a hip injury at, say, 23.
“I think it’s important, especially if you’re an older player, that you take the time to get it healed properly and don’t insert the player in the lineup too early,” MacLellan said.
In truth, the Forever Caps won’t be the only determining factor as to whether the Capitals can replicate the deep playoff run of 2018. At some point, the supporting cast will have to become leading players. Anthony Mantha, acquired in a blockbuster trade midway through last season, must be a force. Connor McMichael, the 20-year-old prospect, must become Backstrom’s obvious heir at center. Evgeny Kuznetsov, just 29 and oozing talent, must be engaged not occasionally but 82 times a year — and then particularly in the playoffs.
Those pieces are all paramount. But until they retire, this team will belong to Backstrom and Ovechkin, who must drive it forward even when they should be winding down.
“They can accomplish team goals, individual goals,” MacLellan said, “and hopefully both finish healthy and it’s a good ending.”
It’s not the end, though, not yet. But it’s certainly the beginning of it. Each time Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom lace up their skates to play together, it should be regarded as special because there are fewer and fewer of those opportunities as time marches forward.