All this, without their identity. Nicklas Backstrom’s gloves and shin pads rest above his locker at the Caps’ Arlington training facility. His hockey pants hang on a hook where he once sat. His teammates bustle in and out because there is practice to be put in and games to be won. But a Capitals constant is now a casualty. It may never be the same as it ever was.
“It’s weird, you know?” forward Tom Wilson said. “The ins and outs of every game, every practice, every day without him. … As a player, he carried the team for 15 years.”
Whatever happens for the Capitals the rest of this season, however long it takes Alex Ovechkin to surpass Wayne Gretzky’s NHL record for goals (assuming he has 69 more in his 38-year-old body), their collective and individual success will almost certainly come without the player who set the standard for both virtually since he walked in the door as a Swedish teenager.
It has been two weeks since Backstrom announced through the team that he was taking time away from hockey, a self-aware acknowledgment of what had become apparent to Caps watchers over the past year and more: His surgically resurfaced hip wasn’t allowing him to be the player he once was, and not close.
But as Ovechkin’s Batman pushes toward Gretzky’s 894 without his Robin, it’s the person whose absence is felt, not the player.
“He’s like my brother,” Ovechkin said after the Capitals’ practice Wednesday. “We grew up together, as persons and as players. You learn about how he develops as himself over those years. He became a real leader on the ice, off the ice. Always, if I ask him something, he helps. And all of a sudden, he’s not here all the time.”
Ovechkin is, without argument, on an extremely short list of the greatest goal scorers in hockey history. But this is a team sport, and the march toward Gretzky hasn’t been undertaken alone. No one has been more instrumental in Ovechkin’s success than Backstrom, who assisted on 279 of his 826 goals — fully a third. The list of players with more assists for a single teammate: Gretzky with 364 on Jari Kurri’s goals; Bryan Trottier with 310 on Mike Bossy’s goals; and Henrik Sedin with 280 on twin brother Daniel’s goals.
All of those players are in the Hall of Fame. Someday, Ovechkin will join them, and that’s obvious. But it should be equally obvious that Backstrom deserves the call, too.
“They’re huge for each other,” Wilson said. “Really the perfect duo at the right time to complement each other. And it’s been really fun to be a part of that and watch it happen. Obviously, they were Tweedledee and Tweedledum for 15 years. The whole way, they supported each other and complemented each other through all the ups and downs.”
At the moment, the Caps are enjoying an up. It may well be tied to the season’s biggest downer. The sad reality is the Capitals are a demonstrably better team without Backstrom in the lineup than they were when a watered-down version of No. 19 played.
Going back to 2021-22, a season in which Backstrom missed 35 games and became convinced he needed the surgery, Washington is 41-44-9 with Backstrom on the ice and 46-23-15 without him. That’s painful to type. It’s also undeniably telling.
Put another way: The Caps with Backstrom during that time play to a 79-point pace over a full season, a rate guaranteed to miss the playoffs. The Caps without Backstrom play to a 104-point pace, a rate that would ensure a postseason spot.
These Caps, as constructed, play with a very thin margin for error. They can’t afford to have anyone dragging behind. That Backstrom was hurting the team rather than helping it had to be a reason he stepped back. He is proud. But he is also smart.
As Wilson said, “The plays that he would make, NHL players would say, ‘Wow,’ ” because game recognizes game. But there’s a maturity in understanding when the “wow” plays not only have evaporated, but the routine ones can’t be made, either.
So back to the person: When he arrived in Washington for the 2007-08 season, Backstrom was quiet, even shy, and unsure in his English. He never became boisterous, but his confidence — built on his discipline and work ethic — eventually grew. Then it spread through the room and became ingrained in the way the Caps go about their business. In that way, Backstrom doesn’t have to play another shift to have an impact on the 2023-24 Capitals.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily a tangible thing like, ‘Here’s what Nick left in that locker room,’ ” Coach Spencer Carbery said. “But what I think it is, and I can speak to it directly, is all the little things that he’s instilled in not only all our veteran guys … and what he’s added to them and shown them and sort of the way he’s led and they’ve gone: ‘Huh, that was really smart. That’s a good idea.’ But also in the young players.”
Carbery points to Rasmus Sandin, a young defenseman who was with Toronto when Carbery was an assistant there. From Carbery’s telling, the Sandin in Washington is a far more mature, professional, focused athlete than he was with the Maple Leafs.
“Why?” Carbery said. “I think Backy could have had something to do with that. Him showing him: ‘Hey, here’s how we practice. Here’s how you prepare. Here’s how we do all that little stuff.’ ”
For 16 years, Nicklas Backstrom was involved in everything the Capitals did, little and large. The Caps he leaves behind are pushing forward with goals for the team (to return to the playoffs) and for Ovechkin (to catch Gretzky). If and when they reach either or both, everyone involved should remember and acknowledge the role Backstrom played in it all. His locker is empty. His heart should be full.