Bäckström issued a statement on his decision, which reads as follows:
Given my ongoing injury situation, I decided to take some time and step away from the game. This is a difficult decision, but one that I feel is right for my health at this time. I want to thank my teammates, the organization, and fans for their unwavering support throughout this process. I ask for privacy at this time as I determine my next steps and viable options moving forward.
Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan issued a statement of his own, which reads:
We stand behind Nicklas and will support him throughout this process. We know firsthand how hard he has worked and how determined he is to get back to full health. Our organization stands fully behind him while he takes his leave of absence from the team and takes time to evaluate his current health situation.
Bäckström, 35, had hip resurfacing surgery in June 2022, and it was initially believed that the process could cost him the entirety of the 2022-23 season. That didn’t end up happening, though, as Bäckström managed to return to the Capitals’ lineup and skate in 39 games.
To start this season, there was some belief that the hardest phase of Bäckström’s injury-related troubles was behind him, at least based on the fact that he played so many games in 2022-23. The hope was that he would be able to be a full contributor to the Capitals’ efforts to return to the postseason.
But after eight difficult games in which he managed one assist, Bäckström has made the decision to prioritize his long-term health. That’s a reasonable decision for any player dealing with considerable injury issues, let alone a player who has accomplished as much as Bäckström.
Bäckström has played over 1,100 games in the NHL, and is Washington’s all-time leader in assists.
For years the partner-in-crime to franchise face Alex Ovechkin, Bäckström is a former All-Star, Selke Trophy vote-getter, and a Stanley Cup champion.
As to where Bäckström’s decision leaves the Capitals, rookie head coach Spencer Carbery likely won’t be able to replace what Bäckström brings both on and off the ice.
That being said, he does have some options to help fill the void now created in their depth chart.
Rookie Hendrix Lapierre, the 22nd overall pick at the 2020 NHL draft, is still finding his footing in pro hockey but offers considerable offensive skill. Assuming Sonny Milano can return to the lineup, that return could shift Connor McMichael back to the center position and place him in Bäckström’s vacated third-line center role.
This unfortunate news does pose one minor silver lining for the Capitals, related to their salary-cap situation. CapFriendly writes that the Capitals are likely to place Bäckström on long-term injured reserve, adding the player’s $9.2MM cap hit to their LTIR salary pool. The result is an increased cap flexibility to not only add players from other teams via trade but also activate currently injured players such as Max Pacioretty or Joel Edmundson.
In any case, this is undoubtedly a difficult development for both the player and team side of the equation. For Bäckström, one cannot underestimate how hard it must be for the veteran pivot to step away from his teammates in order to prioritize his health. For the Capitals, despite the player’s struggles to start the season, Bäckström remains a crucial part of the franchise’s efforts to return to the playoffs.
This is an unfortunate situation for all involved, but regardless of the on-ice implications of this decision the hope has to be that, by stepping away from the game, Bäckström can achieve the improvements to his health that he both desires and deserves.
Photos courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.