How the Capitals can address Nick Backstrom’s absence at center

·6 min read

How the Capitals can address Backstrom’s absence at center originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

The Capitals were dealt a blow at the start of the 2021-22 season when Nicklas Backstrom was unable to start the year due to a lingering hip injury.

Backstrom struggled throughout the season with his injured hip, and now, has undergone hip resurfacing surgery with a recovery timeline and unclear future. After his operation, the Capitals said he would begin his “lengthy” recovery process immediately:

But with an unknown future for their longtime top six center and franchise stalwart, the Capitals will have to consider all options as it relates to Backstrom — including a scenario where he returns at some point in the 2022-23 season, a scenario where he needs a full year off and a scenario where his NHL career is in jeopardy.

Washington could have an abundance of cap space entering July, and if general manager Brian MacLellan chooses to use that up the middle, there are a handful of interesting players the Capitals could target.

With that in mind, and the NHL Draft next week with free agency to follow, the Capitals' summer is about to get very interesting. And with Backstrom almost certainly set to miss the beginning of the season, here are a few center options the Capitals could target:

In-House options

Lars Eller

Eller is the most likely option for the team’s second line center next season, and even he comes with an uncertain future.

Coach Peter Laviolette said after the season that the Capitals would like to find a place for Connor McMichael at center, and with Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nic Dowd on the roster, that left a natural question about Eller’s role on the team. Then, Backstrom’s injury news came and things got thrown into a blender.

Eller is someone that the Capitals are familiar with and, once he got more stability on his line last season, played well with Anthony Mantha when given the chance. After an up-and-down year for the 33-year-old, he could enter the final season of his contract in Washington as the team’s No. 2 center.

Connor McMichael

If the Capitals liked what they saw from McMichael in his first full NHL season, this could be a way to get younger and faster legs higher up in the lineup.

In 68 games, McMichael scored nine goals with nine assists and played well at times, generating speed that the Capitals liked up the middle of the ice. With bigger and more physical bodies like Mantha and Tom Wilson (when healthy), the Capitals could have a nice fast and physical line to play with McMichael as the pivot.

A talented young player, he could be the team’s answer to make sure the majority of minutes in the 2022-23 season are played by younger players. The risk, however, is that McMichael has yet to play those type of minutes at the NHL level.

Free agent targets

Nazem Kadri

Now let’s have some fun.

Kadri is coming off a career year where he scored 87 points in 71 games for the Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche. Naturally, that has put him in line for a massive payday when free agency opens.

If the Capitals decide Kadri, who will be 32, is worth that price, he’d certainly be a strong second line center option behind Kuznetsov. But if the Capitals’ goal is to get younger across the board, and not break the bank, Kadri wouldn’t fit the bill — figuratively and literally.

Should MacLellan want to make a splash, though, this would be a good place to start.

Victor Rask

Rask isn’t a sexy addition by any stretch of the imagination, but he could be a shrewd addition if the Capitals spend big money on wing, on defense or in net.

He certainly isn’t the most noted center on the free agent market — he’s scored just more than 20 goals once in his career (in 2015-16) and has not tallied at least 40 points since the 2016-17 season. But he’s largely been a positive possession player in his NHL career, and if the Capitals are confident in McMichael on the second line, Rask could be a third line player with upside.

Trade targets:

J.T. Miller

The Canucks’ center could be on the move, and per Sportsnet Insider Elliotte Friedman, the Capitals might be interested. Miller is entering the final year of his contract with a $5.25 million cap hit. Like Kadri, he’s coming off a career season where he scored 99 points with 32 goals.

Miller wouldn’t come cheap, and a trade package would almost certainly have to come with a contract extension to make the departure palatable for the future. The issue for Washington would be that a trade would likely come with prospects and picks being dealt, and a center (likely Eller) to move off the team.

But at 29 years old, the talented and experienced center would be a strong addition to a team that needs top six difference-makers.

Sean Monahan

Monahan comes as a risk, but is certainly an intriguing option for a few reasons.

The 27-year-old spent all nine of his NHL seasons in Calgary, but struggled in the last two years and scored just eight goals and tallied 23 points over 65 games in the 2021-22 season. His year ended prematurely due to, ironically, a hip injury, and he's been plagued by injuries in recent seasons. With a $6.375 million cap hit, Monahan's deal could be problematic for the Flames, who have a handful of important players to lock up.

With just one year left, and the Flames’ need to move him off the roster, he could be one of the cheaper trade options for the Capitals to consider as he could come with salary retained or along with other assets. Whether Washington wants to put its chips on a player like Monahan is unknown, and it would come as a major, major risk. If he produces, though, the Capitals could get a steal.

Unlikely, but let's have some fun:

Evgeni Malkin

Besides wanting to watch the world burn, the list of reasons to bring Malkin to D.C. isn't as long as one might think. He’ll be 36 in July and has had health issues in recent seasons.

Hendrix Lapierre

The youngster showed promise in his brief time in Washington, but still likely needs at least a year of seasoning in AHL Hershey to truly prepare for the NHL grind. But for the 2023-24 season, the Capitals could have a mighty interesting dynamic at center if he develops.

Jonathan Toews

Toews would make sense in that his salary ($10.5 million) is similar to Backstrom’s ($9.2 million), and with just one year left on his deal for a rebuilding Blackhawks team, could offer a year buffer in a sort of way to let Backstrom recover for a year. But he's also 34, and Chicago might not be willing to trade the captain just yet.

Vincent Trochek

Trocheck is soon to be 29, has a good understanding of the Metropolitan Division and would make some sense in a second line center role. The Hurricanes, though, have expressed a desire to keep him in Carolina.

Claude Giroux

Would adding a 20-goal and 50-point center to the Capitals make sense? Absolutely. Would it be a good story? Indeed. Would the Capitals be willing to commit significant money, and potentially term, to a player that will turn 35 mid-season? We’ll see.