Forwards Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson will both return from injuries tomorrow for the Washington Capitals, the team announced Saturday. Defenseman John Carlson has been placed on long-term injured reserve to make room on the roster and salary cap.
Capitals forward Tom Wilson will make his season debut tomorrow (Sunday) against Columbus. He is coming back from offseason ACL surgery.
As previously announced, this means Wilson AND Nicklas Backstrom (hip) are back in the lineup tomorrow.
— Samantha Pell (@SamanthaJPell) January 7, 2023
In addition, forward Aliaksei Protas has been loaned to the Hershey Bears, and Joe Snively is on waivers with the intent to send him to the AHL as well.
Skilled Forwards to Return for Washington
This will be the season debut for both players, who have been rehabilitating lower-body injuries since the summer. Backstrom had hip resurfacing surgery on June 17 to correct long-term pain in the joint. Wilson tore his left ACL at the beginning of last postseason and underwent surgery to repair it later that month.
Both players are proven top-six contributors for Washington. Backstrom crossed the 1,000-point career mark last season with 31 points in 47 games despite missing over a quarter of the season. Wilson had a career-high in points last season with 52 and has produced 30 or more points since 2017-2018.
However, the Capitals’ current lineup has been performing well, with the team at 7-1-2 in its last 1o games and holding 50 standings points for fourth in the Metropolitan Divison. The team will have to decide how to add Backstrom and Wilson without destabilizing the established chemistry of the current lines.
How the Lines Could Change
Backstrom traditionally centres the Capitals’ first line. In the Capitals’ most recent game, Evgeny Kuznetsov centred that top line with Conor Sheary on the opposite wing to Alex Ovechkin. Kuznetsov has 36 points, and Sheary is the team’s second-highest goal scorer with 11. Dylan Strome, who served as the second-line centre on Friday, has also played as a top-line centre this season. He is third on the team in points with 31.
To ease Backstrom in, he may play on a lower line to start. Lars Eller and Nic Dowd have been the third- and fourth-line centres this season. One of the two might be moved to a wing to accommodate Backstrom’s return. However, this could lead to a dip in the team’s faceoff performance. Both Eller and Dowd have won more than 50% of their draws this season. Backstrom’s career faceoff percentage sits at 50.1%, but he hasn’t won over half his attempts in an individual season since 2017-2018.
Strome and Kuznetsov both have faceoff numbers below 50%. The Capitals could potentially opt to move one of them to the third line and give Backstrom one of the top two lines.
On the wings, only two players not named Ovechkin have scored 10 or more goals this season, which could give Wilson a chance to slide into the top 6 quickly. Sheary has 11 goals as the top right-winger, and Marcus Johansson has 10 while playing mostly on the third line.
The Capitals have plenty of talent depth at wing, though. T.J. Oshie recently returned from his injury recovery. He has 13 points in 25 games, including a two-goal performance when the Capitals beat Columbus 6-2 on Thursday. Anthony Mantha, who can play either side, has skated mostly on the fourth-line left wing this season. New acquisition Nicolas Aube-Kubel has scored in two consecutive games. Washington could move Strome to the wing to keep him in the lineup.
More Power For Power Plays
The Capitals’ power play ranks 16th in the league with a 22.4% effectiveness rate this season. They could vault to the top 10 if Backstrom and Wilson can help them convert about 2% more. Just two seasons ago, Washington ended the season with the third-best power play, scoring on 24.8% of their opportunities.
Backstrom has 410 career points on the power play, mostly assists. When he has played 70 or more games in a season, he recorded at least 25 power-play points. He was fourth on the team with 14 power-play points last season, despite playing 30 fewer games than the teammates who outpaced him. This season, Kuznetsov and Strome have played in Backstrom’s regular spot on the right side for the first power play unit. Both players have recorded 14 points in the role so far.
Wilson has been steadily increasing his power play contributions for the past four seasons. He reached 10 man-advantage points last season to tie with Oshie for fourth among Washington forwards in the category. That total matches his junior hockey high when he scored six power-play goals and added four assists in 2012-13 for the Plymouth Whalers.
The Capitals have several decisions to make before puck drop at 5 p.m. EST tomorrow. The ripple effects of these major returns could change how the team approaches trades in the next month.