Capitals ‘by committee’ plan to replace Nicklas Backstrom, Tom Wilson

Capitals' plan to replace Backstrom, Wilson is ‘by committee’ originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

The Capitals are prepared to enter the 2022-23 season down a pair of staple top-six forwards, even if they haven’t yet decided how those minutes are going to be divvied up.

Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson will both begin the upcoming NHL campaign on Long-Term Injured Reserve after undergoing surgery over the offseason. Wilson tore the ACL in his left knee during the Capitals’ first-round playoff series against the Florida Panthers; his timetable puts him on track to return around December. Backstrom underwent hip resurfacing surgery in June and it’s still unclear whether he’ll be able to return to the ice this season.

“Those are a couple big pieces, but I feel like some of the parts we picked up this summer can help cover that,” head coach Peter Laviolette told reporters Thursday as training camp opened.

“I feel like the growth and development of some of our younger players can help with that and I feel like the depth that we showed and used last year with some of the players that are trying to compete for a job on our team. We can cover those spots with that as well. So, you don’t like to see the guys out of the lineup, but we knew this. This isn’t catching us off guard today. This is something that’s been, for months now we knew where we were gonna be.”

Washington’s two biggest offseason additions to their forward depth came in the form of right-winger Connor Brown, who they acquired from the Ottawa Senators for a second-round pick, and center Dylan Strome, a free agent signing inked to a one-year deal. Though Brown and Strome play the same positions as Wilson and Backstrom, respectively, they won’t be expected to replicate the production of the Capitals’ stars.

“It’s tough to replace a Nick Backstrom,” Laviolette said. “There aren’t many of him around, but by committee and by a group, by playing a team sport and a team game, you hope to get by all that and so I think we’re gonna count on and rely on a lot of people.”

Brown, 28, averaged just under 16 goals and 24 assists across three seasons with the Senators, ranking among team leaders in ice time and thriving on the penalty-kill unit. Strome, 25, scored a career-high 22 goals for the Chicago Blackhawks last season, a year in which he improved his faceoff percentage and reestablished himself as a productive member of the power play. He’ll get a look as both a center and winger in training camp.

Both represent welcome additions for an aging Capitals team that is looking to advance past the first round for the first time since it won the Stanley Cup in 2018. However, Backstrom and Wilson are in a different tier. Wilson is coming off an All-Star season that saw him ascend into a true unicorn who can score in bunches and match up physically with anyone. Backstrom holds a slew of franchise records, good enough to put him in the Hall of Fame conversation.

“We’re losing big parts of our team, so I think it’s still going to be a challenge,” GM Brian MacLellan said. “I think we’ve added good players. I think it’s going to make training camp fun to see how guys adapt, how they fit in, see what the combinations are from the coaches. People are going to be getting an opportunity to play higher in the lineup. Training camp and exhibition games are going to mean a lot.”

In addition to Brown and Strome, the Capitals will look to younger players such as center Connor McMichael to take steps forward in their development. McMichael, 21, was the team’s top prospect heading into last season. He averaged only 10 minutes of ice time across 68 games, but Washington hopes he can earn more with a strong camp. Other young forwards vying for roster spots include Axel Jonsson-Fjallby, Aliaksei Protas, Brett Leason and Joe Snively.

On the veteran side, the Capitals will lean on players like Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie to continue playing like the stars they’ve been throughout their careers. They’re also hoping Anthony Mantha, who scored in Sunday’s preseason opener against the Buffalo Sabres, can realize his full potential.

The big-bodied winger missed more than half the season with injury last year and was held without a goal in the playoffs. A player Washington acquired from the Detroit Red Wings for a hefty package that included Jakub Vrana and a first-round pick, Mantha will see plenty of opportunities to carve out a significant role in the Capitals’ top six.

With an aging roster, this situation is nothing new for the Capitals. Backstrom’s hip injury limited him to just 47 games last season and Oshie endured two lengthy trips on IR as he dealt with multiple ailments. Oshie underwent core surgery shortly after the season, but he’s not expected to miss any time. The 35-year-old is optimistic the team has the pieces in place to keep Washington competitive while its injured stars work their way back.

“You can’t replace 19 or 43,” Oshie said. “Just not gonna be able to do it. So, we’re gonna miss them, definitely. They both look like they’re in as good a shape as they can be in their stages of recovery, though. So that’s super good to see and the new group, it’s exciting... you always miss the guys that aren’t here, but sometimes when you get four or five new faces it kinda feels a little fresh after not having the success that we’ve wanted to have for a couple years in a row.”