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Besides aging core and goaltending, Capitals must answer injury questions

After losing in the first round for the fourth straight postseason, the Capitals must confront some long-term injury questions. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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As the Washington Capitals head into the offseason after a fourth straight disappointing first-round exit, they face challenges beyond deciding which young players to trust with their aging core and which experienced goaltender they will look to acquire.

The Capitals also have long-term injury questions about multiple veterans — the biggest uncertainty being the future of Nicklas Backstrom.

Backstrom, 34, dealt with a nagging hip injury all season. He had hip surgery in 2015, but the issue flared up at the end of the 2020-21 season. He took the summer to rehab it and missed the first two months of this season. Then he never looked like his true self during the regular season or in Washington’s six-game loss to the Florida Panthers.

Backstrom could have surgery this summer, and he said Sunday that his hip will “never be 100 percent” again. General Manager Brian MacLellan said all of the rehab Backstrom had to do just to play this season is not sustainable.

“We have some decisions to make,” Backstrom said. “Those decisions aren't finalized yet, so we'll take it day by day.”

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When asked whether Backstrom’s hip injury could be career-ending, MacLellan avoided the question, instead saying Backstrom was going to “explore all options.”

Winger Tom Wilson disclosed Sunday that he suffered a “pretty significant” left knee injury in Game 1 that caused him to miss the rest of the Capitals’ postseason. MacLellan said Wilson would not have been able to play at any point in the playoffs.

“My summer sucks now,” Wilson said.

The decision on surgery will be made in the next few days. If Wilson has the operation, MacLellan said he doubts he will have to miss the start of next season.

“There are a lot of question marks,” Wilson said. “For me, I need to get back to being the player that I am. That will happen. You just want to do all the research and ask all the questions and prep before you make any drastic decisions.”

Winger Carl Hagelin, who was hit in the left eye with a stick blade during practice March 1, ruptured the choroid in the back of his eye and had two surgeries. Hagelin said he will never get 100 percent of his vision back. He will try to play next season, but he has a long road ahead.

“I’m staying positive, and I’m optimistic that I’m going to come back next year,” he said. “It’ll be a grind, of course.”

Captain Alex Ovechkin, who had one goal and five assists in the postseason, confirmed that he had a left shoulder injury that caused him to miss the final three games of the season. Ovechkin, who said he is flying to Russia on Monday to be with his family, said the injury will not require surgery.

Beyond all of that, the Capitals will look to make some notable moves in the offseason. MacLellan said they will “explore changes” and nothing is “off the table.” He said adding a veteran goalie is among the priorities.

Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek are restricted free agents and eligible for arbitration. The Capitals’ top unrestricted free agents are forwards Johan Larsson and Marcus Johansson and defensemen Justin Schultz, Michal Kempny and Matt Irwin.

Samsonov and Vanecek have been the top options in net for the past two seasons. After another first-round exit, Washington might not stick with both.

If it’s a choice between them to supplement a veteran, it isn’t clear which one the Capitals favor. They each started 39 games in the regular season. In the postseason, Vanecek started the first two games, then Samsonov got the last four. Vanecek had the better goals against average (2.67 vs. 3.02) in the regular season and had four shutouts. Samsonov, who exceeded expectations in the first round, has a higher ceiling. MacLellan and Coach Peter Laviolette both said goaltending was not the issue in the postseason.

“They’ve both been pretty good but not great,” MacLellan said.

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Whatever Washington decides will have ripple effects on the salary cap. Samsonov was on a one-year, $2 million deal; Vanecek was still on his entry-level contract, which paid him about $717,000.

On the blue line, Washington will have to decide to re-sign Schultz or let him hit the market. The Capitals signed Schultz in 2020 to a two-year, $8 million deal. That’s a hefty price for a third-pair defenseman who had four goals and 19 assists.

Among the forwards, Washington has injury concerns with Backstrom, Wilson and Hagelin, but the organization could use this offseason to get younger at center. If Backstrom’s second rehab goes as planned and he is ready for the season, Washington could move on from third-liner Lars Eller.

Eller has one year left on a five-year, $17.5 million deal he signed in 2018. The 33-year-old had a down year on both ends of the ice amid injuries and two stints on the NHL’s coronavirus list. He finished with 13 goals and 18 assists in 72 games.

If the Capitals decide Eller is no longer a fit, they could make room for Connor McMichael, who had a promising rookie season, or bring in another top-level forward. MacLellan and Laviolette said they want to see McMichael regularly play center, his natural position, moving forward.

McMichael, 21, played 68 games in his first full season, plus five postseason games. He notched nine goals and nine assists, and he made significant strides after he was a healthy scratch in the first two games of the season in favor of Hendrix Lapierre.

Lapierre, who scored one goal in six games with the Capitals, was returned to Acadie-Bathurst of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in November. McMichael stuck around and became one of the Capitals’ trusted rookies to fill holes in the lineup. After Backstrom was sidelined, early injuries to T.J. Oshie and Anthony Mantha followed.

In all, a league-high nine Capitals rookies scored at least one goal. The spark each player brought exemplified what the Capitals already knew: Younger players are a welcome addition, and it’s all about how they are mixed in with the larger, more experienced group.

“We’re older,” MacLellan said. “We’re a veteran team. That’s what we are. I think we accept that. Our core guys are older. We made a decision to go with them. … I think we need a youth injection more than a speed injection. I guess I’m not always buying that we’re slow.”

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