In his 15 seasons with the Washington Capitals, Nicklas Backstrom has played in more than 1,000 games and racked up more than 1,000 points as one of the few athletes in this town you could set your watch to. Yet over the past few years, a hip injury hampered him so badly that he could neither pull on his socks nor tie his shoes. He could have, and perhaps should have, retired. He will not.
Nicklas Backstrom needs to know he doesn’t owe anything to anyone
“I owe it to myself,” he said, “to the organization, to the fans to try to come back.”
Let’s be clear about this, Nick: You don’t owe anything to anyone.
The Capitals held their annual pre-training camp media day Thursday, and for the second straight year they did so having no idea when Backstrom next will play for them — or, frankly, if he will. His 35th birthday is in November. He has given his body to his team and his sport to the extent that playing with his children was a non-starter. Playing hockey again? Why?
“A lot of guys would just say, ‘Hey, it’s been hard, and I don’t want to do it anymore,’” longtime teammate Tom Wilson said.
“A lot of people, I think, would have probably given up,” longtime teammate T.J. Oshie said.
Given his role in establishing hockey as a sport that can create buzz in the District, and his role in building a Capitals culture in which winning is expected, there’s no need for him to dress for another game, dish out another assist, play another shift. The problem is he has an absolute and unwavering desire to do all of those things.
“It’s going to be a tough comeback, if you want to call it that,” Backstrom said during an interview Thursday. “Yeah, I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished here. But at the same time, I want to finish on my own terms. I don’t want to go out feeling this stopped me.”
Man, did it look like it was stopping him last year. The approach before the 2021-22 season was for Backstrom to rest and strengthen the hip during the fall, then see whether he could play from mid-December through the spring playoffs. His production was okay-ish: six goals and 25 assists in 47 regular season games. His form was something less than that.
Backstrom’s game has been built more on smarts than speed. But this is the NHL, and there is a baseline rate at which a center must move. Too often, Backstrom couldn’t reach it. In yet another first-round playoff loss, his production — six points in six games against Florida — masked the fact that even as he tried to lead, he was more of a liability physically.
Last December, about a week before he made his season debut, Backstrom sat on the couch in the lobby of the Capitals’ practice facility and said to me, “Obviously, I don’t want to go out there and not be myself.” And then he went out there and couldn’t be himself. Doubt about whether he could regain his form surfaced — and persisted.
“If you go back a couple years, you always had that in the back of your head,” he said Thursday. “You’re like, ‘What’s next? What other choices do I have?’”
The choice this offseason: hip resurfacing surgery — a kind of hip replacement that, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, involves trimming the head of the thighbone and capping it with a smooth metal covering, in addition to removing damaged bone and cartilage from the socket and replacing it with a metal shell. It was a serious decision to endure a serious procedure.
“I don’t know that it’s actually been done at the level he’s at,” General Manager Brian MacLellan said. “It’s a serious intrusion in your body.”
On June 17, Backstrom underwent the surgery in Belgium.
“On June 18,” he said, “a lot of f—ing pain.”
To help navigate the road ahead, Backstrom talked to other athletes who had undergone the same procedure — former Wimbledon champ Andy Murray and former NBA all-star Isaiah Thomas among them. He got honest assessments but also positivity. On Thursday, he could smile about his situation.
“Honestly, if you take the conversation we had last year, that’s a totally different conversation,” Backstrom said, thinking back to the dark days of preparing to play on one leg. “Now I can actually do things that I haven’t done in years.”
That doesn’t yet include skating. It doesn’t yet include hockey. No one can or will say when those steps will be taken.
“The process from the surgery to now has been really good,” Backstrom said. “I’m in good spirits, you know? I’m mentally good.”
There is a sticky part to all of this, and it has to do with building the Capitals’ roster and Backstrom earning the money he was promised when he signed a five-year, $46 million extension that ensured he would never play in another uniform. If he retired, the Capitals would be free from his annual $9.2 million hit on the salary cap — but Backstrom would forfeit the remaining cash. If he went on long-term injured reserve, even for a year at a time, he would make his money and the Caps could get relief against the cap. The Caps also have insurance on the deal, according to a person familiar with it, in which 80 percent of his salary is covered after a deductible of 30 games worth of salary.
Is living up to that contract — and the organization that issued it to him — part of his motivation?
“I think of it two ways,” Backstrom said. “Let’s say I’m sitting on no contract right now. I’m probably not going to get signed anywhere. At the same time, I was fortunate to sign a five-year deal with Washington based on what I did accomplish and what we won here and everything.
“So, yes, I want to finish on my own terms. I have three years left, and I think I can play — hopefully I can play those three years. I think I can help.”
Translation: You’re going to have to drag him off the ice.
“The passion is still there,” MacLellan said. “It’s fun for him to play — or I don’t think he’d be doing it.”
Practice begins Friday, and there is room to be hopeful. “I’m optimistic,” Backstrom said. But it’s important to be realistic, not rosy. Self-awareness is particularly difficult for elite athletes who know what they once were and desperately want to be again.
“I don’t know exactly what version we’re going to see,” Backstrom said. “A pain-free version would be great.”
That’s most important. But production is, too. Nicklas Backstrom’s No. 19 will be raised into the rafters in Chinatown one day regardless of whether he ever suits up in the home dressing room again. He needs to know that he will be treasured here either way and should take pride in putting in all of the work he has to get to this point — even if he’s never the version of himself we have known all these years.