Photo: Hockeey News
Sometimes a free agent signing will be the logical move for a team to make, but it ends up not working out. In many cases, the player gets injured and is unable to return to his former level. It is often more pronounced for an older player. One case in point is the Washington Capitals’ signing of Michael Nylander before the 2007-08 season.
Time were tough in DC. The Capitals were coming off their second consecutive last-place finish in the Southeast Division following the 2004-05 NHL lockout. They finished last in that division in the year before the lockout, as well.
Before the 2003-04 season, the team was expected to make the playoffs. However, after the team got off to a miserable start in October, then General Manager George McPhee figured it was time to rebuild, given that the team’s most important forwards were all over 30 years old. This included Peter Bondra, Jaromir Jagr, Robert Lang, Steve Konowalchuk, and, ironically, Michael Nylander himself.
As a result, the veteran assets were traded for draft picks and young prospects. The Caps won the draft lottery for 2004 and were able to select Alex Ovechkin.
The Capitals were hoping that the 2007-08 season would be better than the recent past, with their prospects maturing. But with such a young team, the Capitals figured they needed to sign some veteran players to provide leadership and serve as mentors to that young core. To that end, they signed forwards Viktor Kozlov, Michael Nylander and defenseman, Tom Poti.
Reaction to Nylander Signing
The Capitals signed Nylander to a four-year deal for a total of $19.5 Million. While Nylander would turn 35 years old early that season, he was coming off two excellent seasons with the New York Rangers, posting career highs in both goals (26) and assists (57) for the Rangers during the 2006-07 season.
Nylander was the first true center to join the team during the Alex Ovechkin era as in prior years, his typical center was Dainius Zubrus who was considered to be more effective as a right-wing.
This would be Nylander’s second tour of duty with the Caps. He previously played with the Caps during 2002-03 through 2003-04 before being traded at the trade deadline in 2004. Initially, he was going to sign a contract with the Edmonton Oilers but changed his mind and decided to return to the Caps instead, as he felt that Washington was a better location for the family.
The media had praised the Nylander signing, talking about how the Caps had upgraded their offensive power by acquiring him. His playmaking skills were anticipated to complement the offensive skills of star wingers, Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin.
Neither of them had ever been on a line with a true playmaking center during their early years in the NHL. As a bonus, Nylander would serve as a mentor for rookie Nicklas Backstrom who would make his NHL debut that season. As a fellow Swede, Nylander would help Backstrom adjust to the North American lifestyle and even housed Backstrom for a period of time. This is where Bäckström’s tight bond with Nylander’s son, William (Maple Leafs) began.
Initially, Backstrom lived with the Nylander family until getting his place. But he still would be a frequent dinner guest at their house would play ping-pong with Nylander’s children, including his then 11-year-old son, William, who later became an NHL player himself.
The Capitals’ Head Coach, Glen Hanlon, talked about him early in the season.
“I have one rule, every time you put the skates on, work as hard as you can. That’s what we have known about Michael. We had the benefit of having him here before, so we know exactly what he’s like and I haven’t come across anyone who is more intense during practice or more prepared to play a game.”
The initial plan that season was to have Viktor Kozlov centering the first line with Alex Ovechkin and Nylander centering the second line with Semin. Backstrom would start as the left winger on the second line, with Nylander and Semin as he adjusted to North American ice.
Nylander started well with the Capitals while on the second line. However, he injured his shoulder during a faceoff on December 1 in a game against the Florida Panthers and missed the next four games. His shoulder did not improve and by mid-January, he needed rotator cuff surgery and was out for the remainder of the season.
At the time he was shelved for the season, he had 11 goals and had a team-high 26 assists in 40 games. His 37 points were second only to Alex Ovechkin, who had 33 goals and 21 assists at the time.
With Nylander out for the year, the Capitals traded for Sergei Fedorov to fill the void at center. While he was intended to be a rental for only the remainder of 2007-08, he was such a big hit for the team that he returned for the 2008-09 season.
When Nylander returned for the 2008-09 season, he was now third on the depth chart for centers, after Nicklas Backstrom, who had become the top center by the end of 2007-08, and Sergei Fedorov. Nylander, with a cap hit of $4.875 million, was increasingly considered a liability. Statistics-wise, Nylander played in 72 games, recording 33 points (nine goals, 24 assists).
But by the end of the season, he was often a healthy scratch and played in just three games during the playoffs. It was clear he no longer fit into the Washington Capitals’ plans and that his cap hit could be better used to upgrade areas of need, such as defense.
The Last Two Years
Nylander did not play at all for the Capitals during the last two years of his contract. During 2009-10, he was loaned to the Grand Rapids Griffins, the Detroit Red Wings AHL affiliate, in late October 2009. He agreed to play there to get game action and not take time away from prospects at Hershey. Later that season, he was loaned to Jokerit Helsinki in the SM-Liiga in Finland.
Just before the 2010-11 season started, he was loaned to the Florida Panthers AHL affiliate, the Rochester Americans. While playing with Rochester in October, he was seriously injured and required spinal fusion surgery which ended his season.
Nylander’s contract expired at the end of the 2010-11 season. He never played again in the NHL but played hockey in Europe, in leagues in both Switzerland and Sweden, before retiring as a player in 2015.
With today’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, teams can no longer loan players to other teams to remove their cap hit from the roster as they could back before the 2012-13 season.
The Capitals’ signing of Michael Nylander made sense at that time since a veteran, playmaking center was a need. But he then got injured and was replaced with another player — Sergei Fedorov. Plus, Nicklas Backstrom emerged as a true Number One center in the meantime. The injury likely reduced his effectiveness and, with a high salary cap hit, was seen as expendable.
Meanwhile, Michael’s son, William, became an NHL player in his own right with the Toronto Maple Leafs. He and Nicklas Backstrom fondly remember the days when Backstrom lived with their family when they later played together in the IIHF World Championships.
By Diane Doyle
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