Capitals Contracts: A Swede Deal Turns Sour

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.

Rebuilding

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.

Photo: NHL

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.

First Season

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.

Second 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.

Conclusion

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

Related Reading
NHL — Capitals Sign Center Michael Nylander
The Last 92: A Look Back at Michael Nylander’s Capitals Career
Washington Post: Preview of Capitals Prior to 2007-08
Nostalgic Nick: Nicklas Backstrom and William Nylander Share More than Just Ice Time As Members of Team Sweden
The Nicklas Backstrom and William Nylander “Bromance” is a Breath of Fresh Air
Nicklas Backstrom and William Nylander: The Bromance Continues (Video)
William Nylander and Nicklas Backstrom: The Latest Addition To The “Bromance”
NHL — Nylander a Father Figure in More Ways Than One
10th Anniversary: A Look Back at the Washington Capitals’ 2007-2008 Season
Washington Post: Clark Returns to Caps; Injuries Still A Problem

About Diane Doyle

Been a Caps fan since November 1975 when attending a game with my then boyfriend and now husband.
This entry was posted in History, Injuries, Players, Washington Capitals and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Capitals Contracts: A Swede Deal Turns Sour

  1. steven says:

    Yes made sense but sad it turned bad quickly. Not like Panik, Sprong and MoJo who never should have been signed in the first place. Trading Djoos was no loss but getting Sprong was just another example of bad decisions by GMBM. And the same with getting and resigning MoJo. And the Varna/Mantha trade makes 3 bad ones so along with some questinable draft picks (what did all the other teams see and therefore pass on Samsonov yet the Caps picked him) I think its time to move on to a NEW GM.

    • Jon Sorensen says:

      Yep, you roll the dice signing older players. The players you mention were young whipper snappers.

    • Diane Doyle says:

      Of all those signings, the Panik deal made the least sense — a 4 year deal. That was giving a “good soldier” contract to an outsider, basically, who hadn’t ever done anything for the Caps. The Vrana/Mantha deal included the incentives for getting rid of Panik. If it weren’t for the getting rid of the Panik contract, the Caps would have given up less to get Mantha.

      The MoJo signing is for only one year. I believe he was re-signed since the guys in the locker room (especially Backstrom) love him. I think Hagelin got re-signed for a similar reason. But sad that MoJo doesn’t have the endurance as Chris Kreider who has gotten better with age. Then again, MoJo had numerous injury issues after leaving the team.

      • DWGie26 says:

        The Panik signing at the time wasn’t bad. There were several teams trying to sign him and the way the Caps got it done was giving the 4 year term (as they did for Kempny, Hags, and Jensen). Hags was signed as a 3LW who was a Caps killer, had speed, and was a beast defensively. This was when the league was full of 3rd line “Checking lines”. That has since changed to 3 lines that can score and a 4th line Checking line. The line of goons is gone. Those deals for Hags, Jensen where good deals. Kempny probably good except for 2+ years of injuries which couldn’t have been foreseen. Panik didn’t work out.

        • Diane Doyle says:

          I had no problem with either the Kempny or Jensen deals. It was unfortunate that Kempny got injured. At least they both had spent a little bit of time with the Caps before extending.

          Hags wasn’t a bad deal.

  2. T Mead says:

    Now Backstrom in in those shoes. Hip surgery is a bad deal for a hockey player. I know…

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