Upon return, Caps want Backstrom, Wilson ‘integrated in quickly’ originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington
ARLINGTON, Va. — The months have become days.
Just over eight months after Tom Wilson tore his left ACL in the Capitals’ first-round playoff series against the Florida Panthers and six months since Nicklas Backstrom made the decision to undergo resurfacing surgery that addressed a chronic injury in his left hip, both players are closing in on their returns to NHL action for Washington.
“I think they’re pretty close together,” head coach Peter Laviolette said of their injury timelines at practice Wednesday. “They’re close [to returning] and they’re close together. They’re out here and they’re working hard every day. They’re not coming with us on this road trip, but again they’re close and I don’t think they’re far off of each other.”
The Capitals fly out to Columbus, Ohio, for a date with the Blue Jackets on Thursday before quickly returning to D.C. for the second leg of a back-to-back against the Nashville Predators on Friday. They then face the Blue Jackets again Sunday before a home-and-home series with the Philadelphia Flyers later next week.
Backstrom and Wilson have gotten to the point where they could each make their season debuts in any of those games from Friday on. For Backstrom, whose injury has ended the careers of other professional athletes before, he has gotten to the point where he’s skating pain-free and absorbed contact in practice without any lingering issues.
“The first game, whenever that is, it’s a little bit of everything,” Backstrom said of the adjustments he’ll have to make upon his return. “Especially your eyes, too. You’re not used to [looking around]. And hands obviously too. We’ve been skating hard so hopefully the lungs are there. It’s just a reaction thing. Things out there, it’s a little different from practice to games because out there in games you have to react to other players.”
A bout with COVID forced him to sit out a couple days over Christmas, but Backstrom reported no setbacks in his recovery. For Wilson, he could have returned for Washington at a limited capacity in December had the team pushed for him to speed up his recovery. Ultimately, both he and the Capitals wanted him to wait until he was ready to play at the top of his game.
“I think my expectation is that I have to be where I was before,” Wilson said. “That’s the only acceptable outcome. I want to be the player that I was before so this whole process I’ve had that in mind and that’s been my goal. Maybe I could’ve been back possibly a month ago, but I wouldn’t have been the player I wanted to be. I wouldn’t have been the player that I was last year.
“This whole process has been designed with our support team and our medical staff and surgeon and everything to make sure that when I’m back, I’m the player I want to be and obviously, there’s going to be a couple games to get my feet under me. But just come back and do whatever I can to chip in and help the team keep moving forward and push towards the playoffs.”
Re-inserting Backstrom and Wilson back into the lineup is going to require roster gymnastics for both Laviolette and GM Brian MacLellan. Backstrom is on Long-Term Injured Reserve, so the team will need to clear the cap space required to fit his $9.2 million hit under the cap. The Capitals will have to open two roster spots up as well, which means exposing one or two players to waivers.
As for their on-ice deployment, Laviolette doesn’t want to ease them back in. Once they’re ready, he wants to lean on Backstrom and Wilson as the stars they established themselves as prior to their respective injuries.
“They will be integrated in quickly,” Laviolette said. “If they are cleared to come back, to me, they now have to get into game shape and so we got to play them. There won’t be any hiding them. Am I going to come out and play them 27 minutes in the first game? No, but is Nick Backstrom going to be on the power play? Yes, he is. He is one of the best in the league. We are going to get these guys back going.”