Nicklas Backstrom was supposed to age gracefully.
He’s exactly the type of player you’d think would do just that - a pass-first and power-play reliant pivot smart and skilled enough to compensate for the inevitable physical decline that awaits (or not) all of us, crafty enough to have avoided most unnecessary contact over the years (but all too willing to engage in the necessary stuff), and, well, Swedish.
Mats Sundin was posting point-per-game seasons into his mid-30s. Daniel Alfredsson had 75 points in 115 games after turning 40. The Sedin twins missed a combined total of nine games in their last four seasons (ages 34-37) and put up 464 points. Henrik Zetterberg didn’t miss a game in his last three seasons (ages 35-37) and finished seventh in the League in helpers in his penultimate campaign.
Nicklas Backstrom, who currently sits in sixth-place in career points among Swedish-born players, fit right in with that group when he signed his current contract (which has three years remaining on it after this one) back on January 14, 2020. That deal kicked in last season, and the 33-year-old Swede was everything the Caps could’ve hoped for, leading the team in scoring (53 points in 55 games during the shortened campaign) and posting terrific underlying metrics:
Then a not-at-all funny thing happened. A lingering hip issue dogged Backstrom down the stretch and into the playoffs (where he was a non-factor) and Backstrom wasn’t ready to start the 2021-22 season.
“We are not rushing here,” said Backstrom. “We are looking at it long term, not short term. Making sure it is ready before I start skating.
“What happened is just over time, over the years, it’s been grinding it a little bit, and I just think that that happens. When that happens you just kind of have to reset and build it up again, and that is where we are at. Takes longer than you hope, but that is just progress. Just part of building it up again and making it strong again.”
Backstrom missed the first 28 games of the season, and has been a shadow of himself in the 32 he has played, posting the lowest per-game goal and point rates of his career and underlying metrics that echo those struggles:
Those are three different views of Backstrom’s 2021-22 season so far, none of them particularly favorable, and all pointing to the cliff that none of us saw coming:
Whether we’re looking at expected or actual goals above replacement (GAR) Those are pretty steep declines, and both bring Backstrom to within spitting distance of replacement-level.
Backstrom has been a model of consistency over his career, but what makes this dip particularly concerning is that hip injury. Tragically, hip injuries can often linger (as Backstrom’s has, with his most recent ailment dating back to what led to arthroscopic surgery in 2015), at best and be career-enders at worst (at least from a hockey perspective).
One can’t help but think of Ryan Kesler.
“I tried coming back on my first hip and I was working hard rehabbing and skating, and then my other hip went and blocked all my momentum,” Kesler said Monday. “And to be honest, I’m still a far way away to even coming close. I don’t think I’ll ever get to an NHL level again. I’m just hoping to get to a level that I’m happy at.”
“It got to a point, my last couple years playing, I hated the game, I hated playing,” he said. “Going to the rink, being in pain and then not being able to do what you normally do. Your mind wants you to do it and you just can’t do it. That was when I knew, let’s get something done, let’s reset, let’s try to get back to loving the game again. And I started loving the game again. I was trying to get back and skating and then my [left hip] went and I was like, ‘You know what? I’m not going through this again.’
“I still skate three days a week just trying to get back to a level that I’m happy at. But I’m 37 years old. As much as my mind’s like, ‘Oh yeah, I can play again,’ I’m not going to be that guy that’s that naive to think that I can compete in the League, let alone be myself in the League again.”
Now, Kesler had resurfacing surgeries, something that Backstrom hasn’t dealt with, so their cases are very, very different... for now. But reading things like “Going to the rink, being in pain and then not being able to do what you normally do” highlights the tolls these types of injuries can take and what these players put themselves through. Backstrom himself said he was “in pain since November” when he had his arthroscopic surgery... in May of 2015, half a year (and a nearly a full NHL season in which he didn’t miss a single game) later.
But players can and do recover from hip injuries and surgery. Take former Bruin David Krejci for example:
Krejci suffered what he first thought was a groin injury during training camp prior to the 2008-2009 season. He took a few days off but the injury kept recurring, so he finally had an MRI and the team realized it was his hip. He was able to play through the discomfort but there were some days when he could barely walk after a morning skate and had no idea how he would be able to play that night.
“I was limping going back home,” he said. “But once I stepped on the ice, for some reason it didn’t bother me, so that was a good thing. I just took it day by day and I remember getting ready for every game and thinking anything could happen so leave it all on the ice because it could be my last game of the season. That was the right approach but it was a long season.
“But I wanted to get the surgery because of the feeling off the ice and I’m glad I got it done,” added Krejci.
After the surgery in June of 2009 he was ready in time for training camp the next September.
“I felt 100 percent, but my hip wouldn’t let me do what I could do when I’m 100 percent healthy,” Krejci said. “It took some time over the season and it got to a point during the second half of the season when one game I just felt like I could skate and nothing was bothering me, nothing was holding me down, it was like I had the green light.”
“Some guys say it takes three or four months to get back on the ice, but it took me almost a year to feel that there was nothing wrong.”
More recently, David Pastrnak, Nikita Kucherov and Tyler Seguin have all undergone hip surgeries and made it back (some better than others... it doesn’t sound like Seguin’s recovery was much fun). Ryan Callahan, too, who “admitted that he wondered if his lingering right hip injury might be career-threatening” but made it back to play parts of two seasons. Those players were all markedly younger than Backstrom is now, roughly where he was when he got scoped... and made it back to not only rack up another 361 points (and counting), but to hoist the Stanley Cup over his head. But that was also 450 grueling NHL games ago. And missing a third of a season to rest up that hip to get to “playable” can’t be a good sign.
As for Kesler (and Backstrom), there’s life after hockey to consider.
“I can skate, I can demonstrate [drills], I can take face-offs against the kids,” Kesler said. “I’m a lot more functional now than I was before both resurfacings. But at the same time, I can’t run, I can’t do anything that’s pounding. Can I play with my kids and play basketball and jog around a bit? Yeah, but I’m not playing full-court basketball or anything. That stuff [stinks]. I’m still building myself up to hopefully being able to do that, but it’s a slim chance. My body age is like 80.”
One wonders what age Backstrom’s 34-year-old body is, and how long he can keep adding exponentially to that number.
There is some reason for optimism - the line of Backstrom, Anthony Mantha and T.J. Oshie has been good in unfortunately limited minutes (and the addition of Mantha on his own has helped as well). But the harsh reality is that Nicklas Backstrom may never be “Nicklas Backstrom” again - if your $9.2-million center needs a $5.7-million winger or two to be effective, he’s probably not a $9.2-million center.
That doesn’t mean he can’t be a productive player, of course. Skating has never been his strongest asset, so as long as he can suit up, he’s probably capable of piling up the assists and making the Caps’ power play work. He’s smart and skilled enough to do that. Gracefully.