Nicklas Backstrom hasn’t played an NHL game in more than three weeks and has been busy with his fiancee, Liza, recently giving birth to their third child. So maybe it’s understandable that he forgot that the Washington Capitals were in first place in the Metropolitan Division before the NHL paused the 2019-20 regular season on March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus.
What Backstrom hasn’t forgotten is that he was looking forward to the Capitals having a chance to win the Stanley Cup for the second time in three seasons. Now, he doesn’t know if they’ll get that opportunity.
“In case we’re not going to get resumed, it’s obviously tough,” Backstrom said in a video call arranged by the Capitals on Wednesday. “We’ll see what’s going to happen. No one knows what’s going to happen.”
Although Backstrom hopes there will be time to finish this season, if there isn’t, he’s confident the Capitals’ core is strong enough to remain Stanley Cup contenders for seasons to come. That’s one of the reasons the 32-year-old center passed on an opportunity to become an unrestricted free agent after this season by signing a five-year, $46 million contract (average annual value of $9.2 million) with Washington on Jan. 14.
Though Backstrom is having a solid season with 54 points (12 goals, 42 assists) in 61 games and, at 34 years old, longtime linemate Alex Ovechkin is tied with David Pastrnak of the Boston Bruins for the NHL lead with 48 goals, the clock is ticking for the Capitals. Braden Holtby is set to become an unrestricted free agent and, if this season doesn’t resume, the 2016 Vezina Trophy winner as the NHL’s top goalie might have already played his final game with Washington.
The Capitals were likely to be tight against the NHL salary cap heading into next season before play was paused, causing uncertainty about whether the cap will decrease — and if so, by how much — from $81.5 million this season.
“You obviously know the salary cap situation is going to be different for every year,” Backstrom said. “I feel like we got a great core group here, it’s been here a long time and hopefully we can keep it the same because we’ve been through it, we won before and you want to do it again. That’s how our mindset is all the time. Hopefully we can keep the same (team).”
The balance of power in the Metropolitan Division is already starting to shift with the Philadelphia Flyers, who are one point behind the Capitals for first place, and the New York Rangers among the teams on the rise. The Capitals (41-20-8) appeared to be the class of the division and the NHL when they started 26-6-5, but they are 15-14-3 since, including a 3-2 shootout loss to the Buffalo Sabres on March 9, their final game before the pause.
Backstrom said he believes they are in position to make a good run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs if the season resumes.
“I like our chances this year,” he said. “I think we’re a good team and we have been playing pretty good, even though we haven’t been that good lately. I actually forgot we were in the first spot in our division, but that’s good.”
Backstrom said the Capitals players had been staying in touch through a group text, but it’s been mostly quiet on the chat lately other than baby photos. Backstrom is the third Capitals player to have a baby during this hiatus. His newbown daughter, Alizee, who came home from the hospital Monday, joined defensemen Nick Jensen‘s son, Lorenzo, and forward T.J. Oshie‘s son, Campbell, who were born hours apart March 17.
Backstrom already had his hands full with 6-year-old daughter, Haley, and a 3-year-old son, Vince, at home, but he’s adjusting to life as a stay-at-home dad.
“You miss hanging around the boys in the locker room,” he said. “I think that’s such a big part of why you’re in sports, or in team sports: competing, play for each other, traveling to away games, home games, everything. It’s pretty hard. But at the same time, I think we’re sitting in the same boat here and you get some quality time with your family, too, and lot of activities. You know it’s going to get better and we’re all going get back to normal life soon.”
Backstrom is trying to remain optimistic that “soon” will be soon enough for the NHL to complete the 2019-20 season and award the Stanley Cup.
“We’re pretty close to the playoffs,” Backstrom said. “You obviously want to finish the season with a champion. That doesn’t change anything. Whether we play mid-summer, you want to do it. You want to have a champion this year if possible, that’s for sure. I think we’re pretty unknown, what’s going to happen.
“We’re just following the directions from the government and the League, I think. Best-case scenario would be for us to finish the season, whether it’s in summer or pretty soon.”