Capitals’ Nicklas Backstrom is back, just like he knew he would be

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Nicklas Backstrom is back, just like he knew he would be originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

WASHINGTON — Nicklas Backstrom’s decision to have surgery wasn’t about hockey.

The longtime Capitals center had been feeling the effects of his chronic hip injury for years and it finally caught up to him in 2021-22 when appeared in 47 games — his fewest of any season in a decade. Ultimately, however, what drove the now-35-year-old to undergo a major resurfacing surgery was the impact it was having on his day-to-day life.

Backstrom was having trouble doing even the simplest of tasks, from tying his shoes to playing with his kids. Though there was a shaky history of professional athletes returning from this type of procedure, he decided to do what was best for Backstrom the father and husband and let Backstrom the hockey player figure things out from there.

He consulted other athletes who had the surgery including former Wizards point guard Isaiah Thomas and tennis star Andy Murray as well as a few hockey players from his native Sweden. The surgery had claimed the careers of athletes before, but he was confident from the start that he wouldn’t be one of them.

“I knew that day that I could return,” Backstrom said at practice Wednesday of when he spoke to the media at the end of last season, a week before his June 17 surgery. “But it was a little uncertain [when]. It was more about when and how quickly I could recover.”

Backstrom proved to be right, needing six-and-a-half months of rehab before the Capitals activated him Saturday ahead of their game against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Sunday at Capital One Arena. Both he and forward Tom Wilson, who is coming off a torn ACL, are set to make their season debuts together after missing the first three months.

"It was never in question for him,” Washington head coach Peter Laviolette said of Backstrom. “Going back to last year, he was like, 'I'll be back.' He had it in his mind that he was going to play again and he was adamant about that. To his credit, it was a long road and you guys don't see all of it because some of it goes on behind the wall here but there is a long road to coming back from injuries and these two guys had a long road. There are good days and bad days inside an injury and they were really dedicated to try and come back and help this team and have an impact."

Prior to his injury-plagued campaign a year ago, Backstrom was still playing at the top of his game. He paced the team with 53 points in the 56-game 2020-21 season shortened by the coronavirus pandemic, remaining a significant threat on the power play. With Alex Ovechkin breaking records and scoring at an unfathomable pace for a 37-year-old, he’s now set to share the ice once again with the player who has served him more assists than any other.

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The Capitals anticipate inserting Backstrom into both the top power-play unit and a top-six center spot, likely shifting Dylan Strome to the wing. It’s clear Washington fully expects him to be the star player he was prior to his injury, even if he’s just focused on taking it one step at a time.

“I’m not going to put pressure on myself,” Backstrom said. “All I can say is I feel great and, as I said earlier, the biggest thing for me is I have no pain, that I’m able to skate and move the way I want to. Hopefully that’s enough.”