It was the dawn of a new season, and Washington Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom felt 100% — quite the feat for the 35-year-old, who was entering his 17th year in the NHL.
He hit the ice for day one of the team’s training camp, skating around on the surgically-repaired hip that he was tired of talking about. Alex Ovechkin, long the beneficiary of Backstrom’s clean passes, was to his left, leading Backstrom to quip that it felt “like back in the day.”
Backstrom announced Wednesday that he was stepping away from the ice after only eight games this season, perhaps the first step toward the end of the most fruitful era of Capitals hockey. Health injuries were the leading factor, 16 months after he underwent a procedure that left him with an uncertain future.
“I was in shock when I heard it today,” Ovechkin said Wednesday. “He’s my friend, he’s my teammate, and to see how emotional he is, it’s a tough situation.”
Ovechkin was in his third NHL season when Backstrom, then a 20-year-old, made his debut in Washington. The duo rewrote the team’s record books while sharing the ice for 17 seasons, with Ovechkin and Backstrom possessing the franchise records for goals and assists, respectively.
Ovechkin claimed the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy nine times over the years as the league’s top goal-scorer, with Backstrom playing a major role. But the duo’s biggest accomplishment came in 2018, as the two helped guide the Capitals to the first Stanley Cup in franchise history.
The play of TJ Oshie, who the Capitals acquired from the St. Louis Blues two seasons prior, was another key factor in the cup run.
“When I got traded here, I was excited to play with 8 and 19,” Oshie said. “That’s what got me through the pain of feeling like you were getting shipped off, was getting to play with Backstrom as the centerman and Ovi on the left wing.”
Oshie was an impact player during his seven seasons in St. Louis, but he took his game to the next level in Washington. He set new career-highs for goals scored in each of his first two seasons with the Capitals, helping the team win the Presidents’ Trophy in back-to-back seasons.
“My career kind of got resurrected because he was my centerman,” Oshie said. “I know there’s a couple other guys that can say the same, that have signed contracts because of how good of a teammate he is and how good he is at elevating other people’s play.”
Backstrom’s impact was more than just his production on the ice. Teammates praise him for his leadership qualities, eyeing the support that he brought in the locker room or from the bench.
“It’s just tough all around to not have No. 19 on the bench next to you,” Oshie said. “That’s a massive hole that can’t be filled.”