Nicklas Backstrom pulled a red Washington Capitals jersey over his head and then pushed his arms through it before the team’s practice. The dressing room at Kettler Capitals Iceplex broke out into applause — a standing ovation, actually — after seeing the top-line center finally back in his usual practice jersey color.
When training camp opened a month ago, Backstrom was in a white jersey, skating around cones, but not yet cleared for team practices after he had arthroscopic hip surgery in May. Then he donned a light blue jersey, joining the team but signaling he was not yet cleared for contact. Monday marked another step in his progression, skating onto the ice in red to be able to participate in more drills.
“Felt pretty much the same as with the light blue,” he said.
Backstrom, 27, said he hasn’t officially been cleared for contact drills, but that designation may come this week when he meets with his surgeon. If he is cleared for contact, Coach Barry Trotz anticipates he will return to the lineup shortly after.
Trotz said one or two full-contact practices would probably be sufficient before inserting Backstrom into a game. “I think just for peace of mind, it’d be a great thing,” Trotz said. “I don’t think it’s imperative.”
Before Saturday’s season opener at Verizon Center, Backstrom was introduced like every other player, but he stood on the bench in a suit instead of skating onto the ice through artificial fog. On Monday, a large Columbus Day crowd of fans at the Capitals’ practice facility pressed their faces to the glass to get a look at Backstrom participating in every drill for a change. He didn’t miss a game last season, finishing with an NHL-leading 60 assists; he had 78 points in the regular season, which was sixth in the league.
Backstrom’s status for the start of the regular season went from indeterminate to a worst-case scenario return of Nov. 1 to a more narrowed timeline of missing the first four or five games. The Capitals have a four-game homestand through Oct. 17, then they travel to western Canada for games at Calgary, Vancouver and Edmonton.
Evgeny Kuznetsov has skated with the top line in Backstrom’s absence, and Andre Burakovsky has been the second-line center. When Backstrom is back in the lineup, Burakovsky would likely move to the wing. In Monday’s practice, Backstrom rotated in with the second line during practice, playing both center and wing to get time on the ice.
“It’s always fun to see guys back and healthy,” forward Marcus Johansson said. “This is a guy we really need. He’s a guy that always comes to play and is always there for everyone on and off the ice. It’s a guy you need. He’s the first-line center, and it’s not a guy you just replace. Hopefully, he can be back soon.”
Trotz said Backstrom shedding the light blue jersey was about him testing where his comfort zone is, pushing himself just a little bit more in his recovery every day. The extra forwards the Capitals have on the roster, Stanislav Galiev and Sean Collins, are still with the team, though one might be sent down to Hershey once Backstrom is activated off the injured non-roster player list.
“He’s done everything possible to get back as quick as possible, so he’s done a really good job,” Trotz said. “It’s really important that we do the right thing not only for this season, but for the next 10 or 12 seasons that he’s playing.”
Backstrom said the decision for when he could play again will be up to his surgeon and the coaches, “and I mean, we’re on a winning streak now, so we’ll see what happens.”