Nicklas Backstrom’s value to the Washington Capitals is impossible to quantify. As New Jersey Devils coach Peter DeBoer pointed out, in a comparison to Reggie Jackson, Backstrom is “the straw that stirs the drink there for that team on a lot of nights.”
The Capitals still don’t know if they’ll be without Backstrom, who suffered a head injury when he was elbowed by Calgary Flames forward Rene Bourque during Washington’s 3-1 win Tuesday night. Bourque was suspended five games by the NHL for an “indefensible” check to the head.
Tests for a concussion were conducted Wednesday, and Backstrom was set to undergo further evaluation Thursday.
But Backstrom, 24, has been Washington’s MVP to this point, making his potential absence a huge blow.
“I think he’s probably — I shouldn’t say most valuable but one of the top two guys, three guys on this team because he can do everything, and the guys love having him out there,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “He’s so dangerous, and he can not only score but he sets up a lot of guys. Anytime with Nicky out of the lineup would not be good time.”
The Capitals don’t play again until Saturday night at the San Jose Sharks. A flight to California on Thursday, however, means a quick decision is necessary on whether Backstrom is healthy enough to travel.
Backstrom, who has a history of migraine headaches, underwent a concussion test Wednesday morning that was inconclusive, according to Twitter posts by his brother, Kristoffer, that were later deleted. Dale Hunter did not go so far as to call Backstrom’s injury a concussion.
“We’re evaluating,” said the coach, who noted Backstrom took part in off-ice workouts with teammates Wednesday morning. “It’s one of those things where you evaluate it for a few days and see how he is.”
According to an unofficial calculation done by SiriusXM NHL radio, 39 NHL players are suffering from a concussion or concussion-like symptoms. Several Caps on Wednesday recalled their experiences with the injury, which Alzner called the “worst injury you can possibly have.”
Said forward Jay Beagle, who missed 31 games with a concussion earlier this season: “It’s by far the worst injury because no one knows anything about it, really. It’s kind of hearsay. I wouldn’t wish it upon my enemies.”
The Caps hope Backstrom, their leading scorer with 42 points (13 goals, 29 assists), doesn’t have what amounts to a concussion and that he doesn’t have to miss much, if any, time. But given the nature of concussions and the possible late onset of symptoms could mean the Caps play it safe.
Beagle said he didn’t know for a month why he was sitting out because he kept feeling no symptoms until trainer Greg Smith told him what to look for.
“Sometimes those effects take a little bit later and you kind of feel it later on that night when you kind of settle down and your adrenaline comes down a little. You wake up the next morning and you’re not feeling good,” right wing Mike Knuble said. “Every guy handles it different. It’s much different than breaking something. Brains - every guy is different.”
When healthy, Backstrom is different in the kind of way that makes him one of the top players in the world.
What Hunter called a “God-given ability” to sense teammates’ movements and make passes had him on pace for a sure-fire All-Star bid this season.
“He’s one of our most skilled players, and he’s been instrumental on the power play as of late,” forward Troy Brouwer said. “He just does a lot of good things out there; he’s good defensively. It’s tough to replace a guy like that, especially if he’s out for a substantial amount of time.”
Backstrom assisted on all three goals Tuesday night before leaving with about three minutes left.
A game or more without Backstrom likely would mean a promotion for Marcus Johansson and a tremendous void up the middle.
“Everybody’s going to miss him,” Johansson said. “He’s one of our best players, and he’s scored a lot of points in a lot of games for us. I think everybody’s going to miss him if he’s not going to be able to play.”