Saturday was a pivotal moment for the Washington Capitals this offseason, as several headlines now dictate their offseason.
Nicklas Backstrom underwent potentially career-ending left hip resurfacing surgery in Belgium, and given the procedure, he is unlikely to be back next season — and whether or not he will play again remains unknown. There is no timeline for his return, and he will begin rehabilitation and a “lengthy” recovery process immediately, per the Capitals.
He is not the only player to undergo the procedure. Former Florida Panthers captain Ed Jovanovski had that procedure in April 2013 and was able to skate again, but Ryan Kesler, who had the surgery in May 2019, was forced to retire. Every player is different, as the surgery impacts different patients in different ways. However, it is a proven solution to relieving pain and helping people lead normal lives.
READ MORE ON WHN: Will Backstrom Play Again? Inside Hip Resurfacing Surgery
Meanwhile, Alex Alexeyev also had surgery, undergoing a surgical labral repair on his left shoulder. Washington expects him to miss 4-5 months, meaning he likely won’t be back for training camp. And, at the same time, Tom Wilson is out until at least late November or December as he recovers from surgery to repair a torn right ACL.
So, with numerous injuries and a lot to address, the Capitals are in for a busy summer. Here are four decisions the team needs to make this summer:
The Capitals Need To Bring In A Top-6 Center
This is a no-brainer and has moved to the top of the list. With Backstrom out, Washington is not only without its franchise center but its second-line pivot and catalyst on the man advantage. The Capitals haven’t been immune to struggles with secondary scoring, and the power play has not been successful.
Taking that into account, losing Backstrom takes away a key part of the team’s “star power,” and that needs to be replaced. Lars Eller has been inconsistent and is coming off his “most challenging” season yet. And though he has heated up at times, Washington needs a proven, consistent top-6 player down the middle. And, with Backstrom on the long-term injured reserve, the team will have plenty of cap space to work with, and the free-agent market has some solid names this summer.
Some top UFA centers: Nazem Kadri, Claude Giroux, Evgeni Malkin, Filip Forsberg. The team wants to get younger, but Kadri is coming off an 87-point season and can bring Backstrom’s playmaking and Wilson’s toughness to the table. The Capitals could also explore the trade market, where J.T. Miller and other strong names are on the block.
So, there are quite a few potential solutions to this for Washington. Backstrom carries a cap hit of $9.2 million, so bringing in a big name would likely not be too big of an issue if his salary comes off the books.
Washington In Pursuit Of A No. 1 Goaltender
Behind finding a new top center, the Capitals need a goalie. It’s no secret that the Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek duo hasn’t worked out the way the team has hoped. Neither young netminder has been able to take the starting job and run with it, as they have both struggled with inconsistency over time.
Both Samsonov and Vanecek are restricted free agents this offseason, and unless Washington wants to run with three goalies, one may have to walk, especially if a pay raise is in store.
Given the situation and experience over the last two seasons, the Capitals should probably look into a proven No. 1 and even a veteran. Darcy Kuemper would be at the top of my list, as the Avalanche netminder has shown great ability and has solid numbers in net. He also helped lead Colorado to the Stanley Cup Final.
Capitals Must Add Firepower On The Wing
With Wilson out long-term, the Capitals need firepower on the right wing. This could mean bringing in another free agent forward (Valeri Nichushkin, anyone?), or even bringing someone up from Hershey. However, Wilson isn’t going to be gone all year, and he will come back. Therefore, there isn’t as much room for a star player on the right side if Wilson comes back and takes over his spot.
T.J. Oshie has shown that he can fill in on the top-6 right side, especially after a standout 2022 postseason performance. If he stays healthy, he can be a top producer, and the team can get a top-6 to middle-6 option in the meantime.
And of course, there’s also the left side. Johan Larsson and Marcus Johansson are pending free agents, and the team must decide on their futures as well.
Capitals Have To Adress Blue Line
Right now, Washington has a number of pending free agents on the blue line, including Justin Schultz, Michal Kempny and Matt Irwin. Given Schultz’s heavy cap hit and promising youth waiting with the Bears for their NHL chance, I wouldn’t expect him to be back. He has been a strong puck-mover, but he hasn’t been able to truly break through for the Capitals.
As for Kempny and Irwin, both are extras, and Kempny’s cap hit and tough time coming back from injury would make me think that he won’t return either. Irwin is a good extra and depth defenseman, but given his extra role, it’s unclear if the team would hang onto him as simply a depth option with plenty of options in the AHL.
Looking at AHL blueliners that could make the jump, Lucas Johansen is my top choice. He looked solid in his NHL debut and had a strong season with the Bears, putting up eight goals, 20 assists and a +/- rating of plus-20 in 62 games. The 2016 first-rounder has been waiting a long time to make the jump, and it looks like that is likely, especially if Schultz departs. Johansen is a left-hand shot, and this means that Trevor van Riemsdyk could also shift back to his natural right side.