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Nicklas Backstrom ‘optimistic’ about return, but Caps’ injury woes linger

Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom called his hip surgery a “life-changer.” (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

As the Washington Capitals opened training camp Thursday, there was newfound optimism about organizational pillar Nicklas Backstrom, who said he was “pain-free” for the first time in years after undergoing hip resurfacing surgery in June.

Backstrom will start the year on the sidelines but said he is “optimistic” he will play at some point this season. The 34-year-old center said the surgery was a “life-changer” that both gave him a better chance at extending his NHL career and helped his quality of life. He once again can pick up his own socks, tie his own shoes and play with his kids without discomfort.

“You want to finish on your own terms, not because of an injury and feel like you play through stuff that you don’t want to,” Backstrom said. “That was a big part of [having the surgery]. I’m optimistic that I get to do that now.”

Capitals open training camp with a new goalie and the same expectations

Along with Backstrom, Tom Wilson and Carl Hagelin are expected to miss the start of the season as they recover from injuries and surgeries. Winger T.J. Oshie, who needed surgery this offseason, wasn’t skating as training camp opened but is expected to be back Friday.

Wilson, who had ACL surgery in May, said his recovery was going well and progressing ahead of schedule. One of the biggest hurdles he faces is the mental aspect of recovery, knowing his knee might feel 100 percent but he still needs more time. There is no timeline for Wilson’s return.

Capitals open training camp with a new goalie and the same expectations

“I feel like I’ve kind of been ahead of schedule, per se, since Day One, but that doesn’t mean much unfortunately,” Wilson said. “Obviously, I want to be as good as I can every day, but you’ve still got to wait.”

Hagelin, whose eye injury in March led to two surgeries and left his NHL future uncertain, is also dealing with a lingering lower-body injury. Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan said Hagelin has been playing through an injury for a while and it recently worsened. Surgery is a likely option; he is out indefinitely.

Oshie had core surgery a few weeks after the season ended for an injury he suffered in March. He did not participate in the on-ice skate test Thursday, instead watching from the sidelines with Hagelin, Wilson and Backstrom. Oshie said he is “almost” back to being 100 percent.

Washington wanted to hold Oshie out of Thursday’s skate test so he wouldn’t push himself too much before the regular season starts. Oshie spent the summer participating in informal skates and has been wearing a full-contact jersey during group sessions.

With so many injuries off the bat, Washington will depend on faces new and old, including Dylan Strome and Connor Brown, newcomers who are expected to have crucial roles. Brown is likely a temporary replacement for Wilson as the first-line right wing. Strome is likely to be in a position battle with Connor McMichael for the role of second-line center.

“We’re losing big parts of our team, so I think it’s still going to be a challenge,” MacLellan said. “We’ve added good players. It’s going to make training camp fun to see how guys adapt, how they fit in, see what the combinations are from the coaches. People are going to be getting an opportunity to play higher in the lineup.”

Captain Alex Ovechkin, who had 50 goals last season, and surging Evgeny Kuznetsov carried the load in the first half of the year when injuries struck. Washington will depend on them again.

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Ovechkin is in the middle of his pursuit of the NHL’s all-time goals record, needing only 22 to surpass Gordie Howe for second place. But he isn’t focused on milestones — especially on the first day of training camp. Washington hasn’t won a postseason series since it won the Stanley Cup in 2018; Ovechkin is determined to change that.

“I’m at the age that personal goals is nice, but we understand every year [you get closer] to the end of your career,” Ovechkin said. “So I just want to win. I want to be in the playoffs and fight for the Cup.”

Kuznetsov, who had 24 goals and 54 assists last season, also looks to meet and exceed high expectations this season. He felt the added pressure last year and pushed everyone to play better, even though the ultimate result wasn’t what Washington wanted.

“When there is a pressure, you can use it as a motivation,” he said. “You have to understand when you represent this team, there is always expectation [of a] certain level.”