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On a national television broadcast on Feb. 21, the Washington Capitals got the latest in a long line of assists from their most valuable player this season: Father Time.
The Capitals found themselves down 2-0 to the New Jersey Devils halfway through the game. Bewildered and turned around by the Devils’ power play and stumbling over their own mistakes, Washington needed to steady the sinking ship—and fast. Help would come from some familiar faces, long in the tooth and gray at the temples.
Late in the second period, center Nicklas Backstrom fed defenseman John Carlson, who fired a shot on net that T.J. Oshie deflected down and in for the score. The average age of those three players: 33.
The goal kick-started a furious Capitals comeback that culminated in a 4-3 victory behind goals from elder statesmen Oshie, Carlson, and Alexander Ovechkin.
“Against New Jersey, you could see it,” Capitals head coach Peter Laviolette says. “That’s led by the veteran leaders in the room.”
When the Capitals set the best record in the NHL in 2010, they were led by a pyrotechnic core of hot young talent known as the “Young Guns.” More than a decade later, the Caps are relying on a decidedly wiser and more experienced group to get them through the 2021 campaign. Four of Washington’s top five scorers this year are over 30. All seven of their ice-time leaders are tricenarians. Any way you slice it, the Capitals’ cake is skewing more toward millennials and less toward Gen Z these days.
Perhaps that’s by design. In a season genuinely unlike any before it, in which COVID-19 can pause a team’s season at any time and players can be held out of games and forced into quarantine without warning, the steady leadership of veteran players can bring calm and focus to the locker room. No matter who is in the lineup, consummate professionalism—knowing your job and doing it well—is something that younger Caps players are seeing modeled first-hand by the veterans.
“Most of the time it’s leading by example. It’s showing them,” says center Lars Eller, 31. “[Young] guys have got to be ready every day. This year is very different for everybody. You have to be able to adjust on the fly.”
Leder med exempel. That’s how you say “lead by example” in Swedish, and it’s a phrase alternate captain Backstrom knows by heart. Frequently cited by the media and his peers as the most underrated player in the league, Backstrom has quietly built a Hall of Fame career operating masterfully in the shadow of Ovechkin, his friend and an all-time great. The 33-year-old center already holds the Capitals franchise record for assists (698), and is third all-time among active players. But with so many talented young players cycling in and out of the lineup, more of the goal-scoring responsibility has fallen to the Swede this year, and he’s embraced it.
Backstrom leads the team in goals with eight, and is on pace for a career-high in his 14th season. He’s picking his spots with a veteran’s savviness, scoring on nearly a quarter of his shots at a clip approximately double his career average. The former first-round pick may be older, but he’s certainly wiser.
“Watching him from the outside, [you knew] the fact that he was a really smart player,” Laviolette says of his first season coaching Backstrom after coaching against him his entire career. “Having him here, you appreciate all those things even more, [especially] his hockey sense.”
Even more than his hockey I.Q., Laviolette has leaned on Backstrom’s steady, quiet leadership to help this team weather the ups and downs of a wild year in the NHL. “It’s been a bit of a crazy season for us to start the year, and he’s just been a consistent player for us,” the coach says. “I can count on him to do the right things.”
And as Backstrom and Ovechkin continue their assaults on the record books, and COVID-19 continues its assault on the best laid plans of the NHL, Laviolette and the rest of the Capitals, currently in second place in the East Division, will continue to count on this veteran core—the “Old Guns,” now—to lead them to the mountaintop.
“You need those veteran players at the front of the rope, pulling hard,” Laviolette says. “They have to be this year.”