Washington Capitals: Who Will Replace Nicklas Backstrom?


Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington Capitals are preparing for star center Backstrom to be out for a month. How do they go about replacing someone who means so much to the team?

The Washington Capitals rely heavily on center Nicklas Backstrom. He’s an elite center. When you get one, you tend to rely on them. Backstrom is more than just the Washington Capitals first line center. He’s their power-play set up man. He’s one of their best face-off winners. He takes on tough competition and flourishes. Even Alex Ovechkin suffers when he has been apart from Backstrom. 

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The Capitals will face a huge test early on. It appears that Backstrom will be out for at least the first four games.

"“He won’t start the season,” Trotz said. “I know that for sure. I wouldn’t think that’d he’d play through those first four games.”"

That means that even in a best-case scenario, the Caps will get Backstrom back once they start their three-game Canada road trip. Could he come back earlier than that? Sure. But I wouldn’t count on it. The Caps would rather hold out on Backstrom and make sure he’s healthy than risk losing him long-term.

"Trotz said Backstrom hasn’t had any setbacks, but he’s preparing for a “worst-case scenario” return of Nov. 1 and then working back from there.“Going down the Canada trip, who knows? He might make that trip, but I’m not sure if he’d get to the point where he could play or not or anything,” Trotz said. – Washington Post"

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Let me start off by saying that the Washington Capitals aren’t going to be able to replace everything that he does. Elite centers don’t grow on trees. That doesn’t mean that the Capitals are completely screwed without him. They have guys ready to step up and fill in for him. Asking them to be as good as Backstrom is asking way too much. They can, however, help the Washington Capitals make up for Backstrom’s loss.

Backstrom is the first line center for the Capitals. Washington has a pair of second-year centers who could take over that role. The first is Evgeny Kuznetsov. Kuznetsov has experience being Ovechkin’s center. The two Russians have pretty good chemistry together. Kuznetsov also adds an element of goal scoring to the first line that perhaps wasn’t there with Backstrom.

The second is Andre Burakovsky. Burakovsky is less proven than Kuznetsov. When given the opportunity to succeed, Burakovsky has had more success in some regards than Kuznetsov. Kuznetsov will likely get the nod, but hopefully Burakovsky at least gets considered. However, I don’t think Trotz will let a 19-year-old (Burakovsky) get the keys to the Ferrari (first forward line) quite yet.

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The Capitals will also have to replace Backstrom on the power play. Over the past three seasons, Backstrom has been the most productive center on the power play in the NHL. Kuznetsov looks to be the guy who will be replacing him in that regard. Backstrom had 7.87 points per 60 minutes on the power play last season. Kuznetsov wasn’t too far off with 6.76 points per 60 minutes. Derek Roy (who will likely sign a contract with the Caps with the loss of Backstrom) is another option. He has had success on the power play before on teams with far less efficient power plays than the Caps.

Replacing Backstrom on faceoffs will be extremely difficult. Last season, Backstrom took the most faceoffs of any Caps center. He also had the second highest faceoff win percentage (53.43%). Neither Kuznetsov (44.53%) or Burakovsky (43.91%) seem like good fits in the faceoff dot. Jay Beagle (55.81%) and Michael Latta (47.76%) are the top two remaining faceoff men among the Caps centers.

However, perhaps the Caps shouldn’t be overly concerned about this. Faceoffs are relatively unimportant. It largely doesn’t matter whether you win a faceoff or not. What matters is what you do after the faceoff. If you can’t keep possession, does it really matter that you won the faceoff? It doesn’t really matter if you lose the faceoff should you regain possession quickly. Keeping possession and getting the puck back are far better predictors for success than winning faceoffs.

The Capitals are prepared to lose Backstrom for a month. They’ll likely be fine without him. It’s better for the Capitals to wait until Backstrom is truly 100% than to rush him and risk losing him long-term. While the Washington Capitals can replace Backstrom short-term, replacing Backstrom long-term would be virtually impossible.

Next: Forward Line Outlook Without Backstrom

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