Capitals’ Nicklas Backstrom stepping away from team to focus on his health

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 David Kirouac-USA TODAY Sports

Washington Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom announced Wednesday that he is temporarily stepping away from the team to focus on his health.

“This is a difficult decision, but one that I feel is right for my health at this time,” Backstrom said in a statement. “I want to thank my teammates, the organization and fans for their unwavering support throughout this process. I ask for privacy at this time as I determine my next steps and viable options moving forward.”

Backstrom cited his “ongoing injury situation” but didn’t specify if there’s an issue with his hip or something else. He also did not provide a timetable for his return.

The 35-year-old had hip resurfacing surgery in June 2022 and has appeared in only 47 games since, including eight this season. In September, Backstrom said at the start of the Captials’ camp that he felt “way better” after a normal summer of training compared to a year ago when he was still recovering from his surgery.

“I mean, I’m 100 percent. I’ve done everything I can this summer,” the veteran center said. “I worked really hard … There’s nothing I’m more excited about than going back and playing hockey.”

Backstrom has spent his entire NHL career with the Capitals, who drafted him with the No. 4 pick in 2006. He has recorded 1,033 points in 1,105 games and is Washington’s all-time assists leader with 762.

Could this turn into retirement for Backstrom?

Backstrom hasn’t been the same player since his deteriorating left hip forced him to have surgery in 2022.

A point-per-game scorer across his first 14 NHL seasons, Backstrom returned midway through last year and put up just 21 points in 39 games. He had one assist in eight games this season before deciding to take a leave of absence from the game.

It’s not yet clear if this is the end of the road for Backstrom. He’s going to take time to reevaluate his situation, and the team is supporting him through that process.

Should his absence last more than 24 days, the Capitals will have the option of placing his $9.2 million cap hit on long-term injured reserve and using some or all of that additional space to bolster their roster.

A player already with Hall of Fame credentials, Backstrom is under contract with the Capitals through the 2024-25 season. — Chris Johnston, NHL senior writer

How his absence affects Washington’s cap space

Backstrom on Monday reached out to trainers and Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan with a message he surely never wanted to communicate: he needed time away from the game. His chronic hip issues were simply too much to ignore and are not allowing him to be the player he needs to be.

This was not a retirement announcement, the team was clear in that.

For the moment Backstrom will be placed on IR, but at some point in time it’s likely the Caps will transfer him to LTIR. What that means in the immediate future as far as the team’s ability to use his cap dollars to acquire some help remains unclear, given that there is no firm timeline on Backstrom’s possible return. Again, if a player comes back before the end of the regular season, then there must be cap room available to reinstate him.

But I suspect as time goes on here, if it becomes clear that Backstrom isn’t feeling better, and I’m not saying that will necessarily happen, but if it does, then perhaps in a month or two the Caps will have a better idea about whether they can go out and spend that cap number.

You feel for Backstrom, of course. He was one of the league’s top centers for many years, a Stanley Cup champion in 2018, but his chronic hip issues have jeopardized his career. If Backstrom doesn’t play again, he likely will not retire until after his contract expires. Think of the way Shea Weber, Brent Seabrook and Carey Price are still under contract despite not playing anymore. — Pierre LeBrun, NHL senior writer

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(Photo: David Kirouac / USA Today)

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