Assessing The Capitals’ Nicklas Backstrom Quandary

This past summer, Nicklas Backstrom decided to take on an intensive and potentially career-impacting hip resurfacing surgery. By all accounts the surgery went well, as he  eventually out-performed the odds of returning to the ice during the 2022-23 season. He ended up suiting up for the Capitals in 39 games.

While it was great for the Capitals and fans too see Backstrom back on the ice, it wasn’t the same Backstrom we’ve become accustomed to seeing in red, white, and blue since the 2007-08 season.

The surgery was particularly risky for Backstrom’s career. He mentioned that it helped relieve his hip pain in his day-to-day life, but recovering from this surgery and having a fruitful post-surgery career is unprecedented for this type of procedure.

Other notable players who had this procedure done were Ryan Kesler of the Anaheim Ducks and Ed Jovanovski of the Florida Panthers. Neither Kesler or Jovanovski had significant (or any) playing time following those surgeries. Jovanovski was 36 when he had the surgery done. Kesler was 34.

Backstrom is currently 35. Jovanovski played in 37 games after the hip resurfacing surgery, was then bought out, and then retired the following season. By my calculations, Backstrom now has the most games played in the NHL following a hip resurfacing surgery.

In his breakdown day interview, Backstrom mentioned that he was optimistic about his future performance, since he’ll be able to get a full training session in this off-season. General Manager Brian MacLellan didn’t share in his optimism, effectively saying that he doesn’t know how much better Backstrom gets with the off-season training and that Backstrom will have to make a decision on his career prior to training camp.

In this post, we’re going to evaluate Backstrom’s performance in his 39 games played this season. The statistics used in this post are courtesy of Evolving Hockey, Natural Stat Trick, Hockey Reference, and HockeyViz. If you’d like to learn more about the statistical terms used in this post, please check out our NHL Analytics Glossary.

Performance during five-on-five play

Here’s a glance at how Backstrom fared in the key underlying metrics during five-on-five play by month over the course of the season:

This is a tough look for Backstrom. He largely struggled to have a positive impact on the ice in possession metrics, goals for percentage (GF%). There’s an absolute eye-sore in February, where Backstrom actually posted his best Corsi For percentage (CF%), Fenwick For percentage (FF%), shots for percentage (SF%), and expected goals for percentage (xGF%), but laid an absolute goose egg in GF%.

Problems with finishing rates is nothing new for the Capitals this season, but a 55.69% differential between GF% and xGF% is harrowing. Here’s a glimpse into a concerning trend for Backstrom during five-on-five scoring this season:

Obviously, we know that Backstrom was on the ice for zero goals scored during the month of February. Outside of that, though, there’s a concerning trend where Backstrom only scored one goal and nine total points during five-on-five play this season.

In all game situations, Backstrom had seven goals, 14 assists, and 21 points on the season. That means that 11 of his 21 total points came on the power play. It’s becoming crystal clear that Backstrom no longer is driving scoring during five-on-five play, and is effectively a power play specialist.

To hammer this point home, here’s Backstrom’s isolated impact this season:

This graphic is harrowing to see. The Capitals are 16% worse offensively during even-strength play when Backstrom is on the ice and 9% worse defensively. He barely moved the needle on the power play.

With his underlying metrics and offensive output (or lack thereof) this season, these isolated impact figures are basically to be expected.

Here’s Backstrom’s rate-adjusted plus-minus (RAPM) chart this season:

This basically mirrors the takeaways detailed above. Backstrom is below replacement level of impact in all offensive categories during even strength, but has some value recouped by his expected goals against per sixty minutes (xGA/60) figure. Overall though, this is not the type of performance that instills confidence in a potential rebound performance next season.

The above RAPM chart is concerning enough, but when we look back to his RAPM chart from early March when we analyzed his performance last, we can see a clear degradation in performance across the board during even-strength situations:

There’s a couple potential reasons here: Backstrom’s performance suffered over time after not having a true off-season to condition; or Backstrom’s surgery has impacted his ability to perform at high levels. It could even be a mix of both.

Player value using Goals Above Replacement (GAR) and Expected Goals Above (xGAR)

GAR (and xGAR) is a metric-based tool set that allows us to measure a player’s overall value on the ice in relation to “replacement level”, which is effectively a borderline NHL player.

Here’s Backstrom’s GAR and xGAR performance over the course of his career:

This is the first season of Backstrom’s career where his GAR has fallen below replacement level. He’s had an overall downward trend over the course of his career, which is normal, but the fact that he’s now a negative value player likely isn’t a coincidence with the timing of his surgery.

The last time we checked in on Backstrom’s performance, he posted a GAR of -3.5. He finished the season at -2.1, which is slightly better than where he was at the beginning of March. That’s not necessarily a victory though, considering his cap hit of $9.2M for the next two seasons.

For a good view of Backstrom’s overall player value, here’s his player card from Evolving Hockey:

Backstrom’s overall ranking of 14 means that he’s in the 14th percentile of players in his position group. He’s making the 10th highest cap hit among NHL centers this season. Evolving Hockey ranks him rather highly in defensive marks, putting him at the 70th percentile.

If we were looking at Backstrom’s performance above in a vacuum where his salary didn’t matter, he’s effectively a third line center and power play specialist. Unfortunately, that’s not exactly feasible for a player with a cap hit of $9.2M.

Where do the Caps and Backstrom go from here?

When I was watching MacLellan’s press conference on break down day, I was taken aback by his honesty regarding Backstrom’s future. His candor, especially with the context of the question being around Backstrom’s optimism with a full off-season of training and recovery, really added a stark, bleak reality that the Caps are in a really precarious situation with Backstrom’s current level of play and his contract’s cap hit.

The reality is, the Caps could surely use that $9.2M to fill gaps in the roster. If the Caps are intent on invigorating the lineup with a bit more youth and skill, they can hardly afford to pay a sharply regressing Backstrom $9.2M to be a third line center who gets time on the first power play unit. They have options in Hershey that could fill that third line center role for 10% of the cost of Backstrom’s cap hit.

Here’s the options the Caps have:

  1. The Capitals convince Backstrom that he should retire, while still taking care of him financially and giving him a role in the organization.
  2. After a summer of conditioning, Backstrom’s hip is ailing and can no longer play. Doctors have to corroborate the injury’s impact on his ability to play hockey, and is put on the long term injury list until his contract ends. The Capitals could then trade his contract to another NHL team looking for LTIR money.
  3. The Capitals buy out the remainder of his contract. This seems like the least likely scenario to me, because you run the risk of potentially enraging Alex Ovechkin. The Caps would save $3,833,333 against the cap next season, $833,333 in 2024-25, but take on an excess $1,166,667 in cap hit in 2025-26 and 2026-27.
  4. The Capitals trade Backstrom to a team that needs to hit the salary cap floor and is looking for a player to mentor young players. The Capitals would likely have to pay a considerable price to dump his contract on another team.
  5. The Capitals and Backstrom are satisfied enough with his health to give him a chance to play during the 2023-24 season and will monitor his performance.

This is a really precarious situation for both Backstrom and the Capitals. Backstrom wanted to get the surgery to ensure that he could end his NHL career on his own terms. If Backstrom is optimistic about his off-season and having a better season next season as a result, he’s going to be less likely to accept retirement. This seems more like a pride thing for Backstrom, and I’m sure he would want to be a part of another Stanley Cup. I don’t blame him there.

This off-season is going to be full of a ton of story lines around the retooling of the roster and infusing youth, a higher pace of play, and hiring a new coaching staff. The Backstrom quandary might be the most impactful story of the upcoming off-season, though.

By Justin Trudel

About Justin Trudel

Justin is a lifelong Caps fan, with some of his first memories of the sport watching the team in the USAir Arena and the 1998 Stanley Cup appearance. Now a resident of St. Augustine, FL, Justin watches the Caps from afar. Justin graduated with a Bachelor's of Science in Political Science from Towson University, and a Master's of Science in Applied Information Technology from Towson University. Justin is currently a product manager. Justin enjoys geeking out over advanced analytics, roster construction, and cap management.
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26 Responses to Assessing The Capitals’ Nicklas Backstrom Quandary

  1. Brant W says:

    I really hate to say it but I hope Backy hangs them up. 🙁

    • Jon Sorensen says:

      I know what you mean, Brant. It’s tough. He’s my personal favorite.

    • I agree. He’s one of my favorite players ever, but a retirement would help to reconstruct the team.

      • jonicap says:

        what bothers me, is that we fans are forced to suggest that Backy do the right thing instead of the coach or the GM. Backy shouldn’t have to be the one to make that decision in essence voting against himself. That should be good analytical decision making by responsible parties. He should have been traded. I think someone would have taken the chance on him because of his mind and skill set. Or, if the team wanted to, they could have gone to him and said, “We have to make a choice; we have good centers that are younger. Do you wish us to find a trading partner, or give you a send off this season? You certainly deserve a chance to play…’ve worked hard, but we have the talent to continue, and the team must make decisions that are best for the team.” PERIOD.

  2. James says:

    Yeah, like I’ve been saying for 3 months now.
    Thank you so much for this candid, unsentimental examination of a crucial dilemma.

    Backy is my all time favorite Cap (I’ve been a Cap fan since 1984). He has been wonderful – and the Caps and their fans have treated him wonderfully. This is the essential truth of this player/team relationship.
    If Nicky was of my generation, he would have the sense of loyalty and appreciation for his employer (Caps and their fans) that so marked American workers prior to the millennials. He has been paid generously and he has been worth every penny.
    But Nick needs to accept that his contract is an anchor to his employer (Caps and fans) that will almost certainly prevent the team from being competitive for years.
    Is he entitled to the money? I guess he is.
    My hope is and has been that Nick thinks more like me than like LeBron James.
    We love you, Nick. Love us back.

  3. Marky says:

    None of those is a good option but Bmac help make this bed so I say play him less minutes and keep him on the PP. Then in ‘24 try the retirement thing. If not, buy him out then and the financial impact only lasts
    2 yrs rather than 4.

  4. Prevent Defense says:

    Thanks Justin for the comprehensive analysis!

    Lots of NHL analyst types, from NHL Network to Elliotte Friedman, remind sports fans and GMs all over the world about the current Boston Bruins “let’s be champions” contracts. We have Patrice Bergeron with an annual of $1.5M, and David Krejci at $1M. Even Brad Marchand makes $3M per season. [Fact Check if necessary at A professional sports writer I ain’t. ]

    Team friendly for sure. Fan friendly. Hard to be heartbroken over a pro athlete making 1 or 1.5 or 3 million dollars while most Americans are barely making it. But I detest the Bruins far less than other teams with of their several veterans taking a “let’s be champions” contract for a chance at immortality.

    The point is that some players will play for a diminished cash payout in exchange for being really good and lining up for Championship possibilities. Nine Million Dollars … Can’t think of too many NHL-ers that put out a true $9M quality.

    I recall the Justin Williams and Mike Richards season with the Caps. Richards was “bought out” and then brought back. Didn’t work out so hot. Each was “Stanley Cup Experience.” That didn’t pan out either

    • KimRB says:

      Your numbers are wrong. Marchand is making $6.125M, Bergeron $2.5M, Krejci you got right. Don’t use hockey Use

    • KimRB says:

      I was wondering why hockey had such obviously wrong numbers. Now I get it. There are two columns, and you have to toggle them. The one you were looking at is for what they’re actually being paid. The second one is the cap hit. Like I said, try Cap Friendly. Easier to understand, in terms of cap hit.

  5. Chris says:

    Didn’t see the option where GMBM wants to dump Backstrom, but he tells mgmt to pound sand. BM must then patch holes around him with little salary cap availability. Most likely outcome. May be frustrating organizationally, but Caps offered/signed the contract too.

    • So, MacLellan has an out here if it came to it. Backstrom’s contract clause changes from a no-movement clause to a modified 15 team no-trade clause this off-season in the new league year. So Mac could try to do right by Backstrom, and if it’s really absolutely necessary to trade him anyways, he technically could.

      Not that it’d be a good look if Backstrom was against it, but it’s definitely an option.

  6. Darby says:

    First, I hope he makes the right choice for his health. Would love to see him get healthy this summer and get back to driving defenses crazy. And I would be equally happy to see him on the coaching staff. His technical understanding of the game is second level.

  7. Anonymous says:

    I am interested to see what a real off season of training( not just rehab) and a new coaching staff will do for him. I think if 2023-24 is more of what we saw than I push for retirement.

  8. Diane Doyle says:

    Thank you for the analysis. While I was glad to see Nicky re-sign with the Caps, the team seemed somewhat long and gave me an uncomfortable reminder of the Michael Nylander contract. Nylander signed a 4 year deal at age 34, got injured midway through his first season with the Caps and was out for the rest of the season. He came back the next year but wasn’t quite as good and he was lower in the center depth chart. Nobody wanted him on the Caps anymore, except the hockey coaches of his kids. He ultimately was lent to the AHL team of a different organization and to foreign teams to get rid of his cap hit (which they could do in those days but is against the current CBA). In an irony, Backstrom had lived with the Nylanders his first year in the NHL.

  9. novafyre says:

    Because I was curious and ignorant, I went digging.

    Article 11.10 of the NHL CBA does not allow for the renegotiation of contracts:
    11.10 No Renegotiation. In no event shall a Club and a Player negotiate a change in any terms of a Player SPC for the then-current season or for any remaining season of an SPC.

    The only way to end a player’s contract early is to buy it out, or have the player retire, and then only if the contract took effect prior to a player turning 35. The collective bargaining agreement 35-and-over rule states that if a player signs a multi-year deal when the player is 35 or older, starting in the second year of the contract, that amount will count towards the team’s salary cap regardless of whether the player is on the active roster or not (unless the player is on long-term injured reserve); this provision remains in effect for the 2013 collective bargaining agreement. This is designed to keep teams from signing older players to lucrative front-loaded contracts, thus saving cap room, in which there is no expectation the player will actually play in the latter years. A player who signs a contract at age 35 or older can be bought out as a compliance buyout, or, as a regular buyout. As a regular buyout, the team does not receive cap relief, instead they free a roster position and decrease the salary owed to the player.

    Unless a team terminates a contract by mutual consent (which is rare) or attempts to terminate a contract for an alleged violation of the SPC (which is almost as rare, and when attempted invariably triggers a grievance from the NHLPA) then the only way to end a player’s contract early is to buy it out, or have the player retire, and even then there will only be salary cap relief if the contract took effect prior to a player turning 35.

  10. GRin430 says:

    There’s a 6th option:

    The new coach comes in and establishes a series of skating tests with realistic, but high, thresholds for minimum performance. Like the bag drill they normally have to do, but adding true speed and agility tests (timed line-to-line and and cone drills, etc.), not just basic fitness testing, which is what the bag drill is.

    Everybody on the team would have to pass the minimum thresholds, so it wouldn’t be like they were just picking on Backstrom. If Backstrom (or any of the other old farts) passes, great, they get to stay on the active roster through camp. In fact they need to set the standards high enough that if Backstrom can pass the test, he will likely be back to the player everybody wants him to be, since he has shown that he is still an elite passer and solid defender.

    Whoever fails to pass the test is suspended until they do. Anybody who can’t pass the test by final cut-down day is either put on LTIR or waived, with good cause.

    The point of this is to be fair as well as improve the overall fitness/skating on the team — If anybody on the roster can’t skate at the level demanded by the new staff, they should be gone. That includes #8, who looked like he needed a few repairs by the end of the season. I have absolutely no doubt that Ovechkin will recover and could pass a fairly rigorous test, but he needs to show up in top shape for the new coaches no matter what. So does every other player, including Oshie, Carlson and Backstrom.

    • The issue here is that if you try to waive Backstrom, it’ll only save about a million dollars in cap space. Waiving him does effectively nothing because no team will claim him, so you’re basically just paying him on your cap to not play for you, and that costs more than just simply buying him out.

      The other issue with LTIR is, you can’t just place players on it, doctors have to corroborate that the player is suffering from an injury or general malaise that renders him unable to play. Otherwise, teams would just circumvent the salary cap easily.

      • GRin430 says:

        If he can’t pass the test, Backstrom would almost certainly retire in any case. He would not want the alternatives, nor would the Caps.

        But him not passing the test also likely gives the doctors grounds to allow him to go on LTIR. The dude had his hip rebuilt, a career ending injury for every other NHL player who has had it done. I don’t believe the league would say a word.

        I truly do not believe that the Caps would ever have to waive Backstrom. If he doesn’t pass, he’ll know he’s done.

        So waivers is more for any other player on the roster that can’t pass the test. If you are trying to get younger and faster, anybody that can’t meet a skating-quality standard won’t fit.

    • redLitYogi says:

      I love the idea of this kind of testing. But I also suspect that net might well catch a few players you don’t want it to catch, namely Ovechkin and Carlson neither of whom are near their peak in skating ability these days and yet are still effective, positive-impact players because of their experience and of what they do very well to compensate. In the end, it’s up to Nick.

      • GRin430 says:

        They should test a few players considered average NHL skaters in order to set the thresholds. They could then quietly test Ovechkin in August, and see if he can meet those thresholds. If he can’t, They’d either have to push him to get himself in better shape, or lower the thresholds to something he can meet. If Carlson and Backstrom can’t meet that even a lower Ovy standard… maybe there’s a message to management in that.

        I actually have no doubt that Carlson and Ovechkin could meet a standard based on the average NHL player. But if they can’t, what does that say about the core of this team?

      • GRin430 says:

        I also agree with you that the decision will almost certainly be up to Backstrom in the end, but management will also have a major say. Blog commenters like me… not so much.

  11. dwgie26 says:

    I mean, GMBM pretty much laid down the gauntlet with Backstrom. This is what I like about GMBM… he is direct and moves with a purpose once there is a plan. He is big on talking to people and getting prepared and then he goes and executes.

    What I think we are seeing since TDL and into the offseason is that Ted and BMAC have a plan. They got Sandin, moved out a bunch of UFA’s. Signed the ones that made sense (RD are hard to find). Moves quickly on Lavi and then Blaine and McCarthy. Sent a strong message to Backstrom about being physically capable of being an elite 9.2M player.

    I am excited to see there seems to be a plan. Now we just trust the process, but it won’t all happen overnight.

    • Agree, I think that MacLellan is extremely aggressive when he has a solid plan in place. The best example I can think of is when he took over as the GM from McPhee, and instantly upgraded the defensive corps by signing Orpik and Niskanen.

      He’s going to do what he needs to do to get the team retooled. Backstrom’s contract is just a potential wrench in the plan.

    • Jon Sorensen says:

      Also agree. He was blunt as can be about Kuzy and Mantha. There are no wishy washy interpretations of what he meant there.

  12. redLitYogi says:

    Mr. Trudel, the word you want is precarious and not precocious. Perhaps it’s a spell check problem? The ten year old who plays Mozart’s 21st Piano Concerto is precocious. The situation wherein a man must walk on the edge of a high rise to rescue his cat is precarious. But judging by your excellent writing I’m sure you know that, must be a spell check thing.

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