Photo: Hockey News
Sometimes signing a free agent is a logical move for a team, but it ends up not working out. In many cases, the player is injured and cannot return to his previous level. It’s usually more pronounced for an older player. One example is the Washington Capitals’ signing of Michael Nylander prior to the 2007-08 season.
Times were tough in DC. The Capitals were coming off their second straight Southeast Division finals appearance since the 2004-05 NHL lockout. They also finished last in that division the year before the lockout.
The team is expected to make the playoffs before the 2003-04 season. However, after the team got off to a poor start in October, general manager George McPhee felt it was time for a rebuild as the team’s most important forwards were over 30 years old. This includes Peter Bondra, Jaromir Jagr, Robert Lang, Steve Konowalchuk, and surprisingly, Michael Nylander.
As a result, the former assets were traded for draft picks and young prospects. The Caps won the 2004 draft lottery and were able to select Alex Ovechkin.
While the Capitals were hoping the 2007-08 season would be better than last, their chances are ripe. But with such a young team, the Capitals felt they needed to sign some veteran players to provide leadership and serve as mentors to that young core. For this, they signed forwards Viktor Kozlov, Michael Nylander and defenseman Tom Poti.
In response to Nylander’s signing
The Capitals signed Nylander to a four-year contract worth $19.5 million. When Nylander turned 35 earlier that season, he was coming off two great seasons with the New York Rangers, posting both goals (26) and assists (57) for the Rangers in the 2006-07 season.
Nylander was the first true center to join the team in the Alex Ovechkin era, and as in previous years, his usual center, Dainius Zubrus, was thought to be more effective as a right wing.
This is Nylander’s second career visit with the Caps. He previously played with the Caps from 2002-03 to 2003-04 before being traded at the trade deadline in 2004. He was originally going to sign with the Edmonton Oilers, but changed his mind and decided to return to the Cubs instead. Because he felt Washington was a better place for his family.
The media has praised the signing of Nylander for how the Caps have boosted their offense by acquiring him. His playmaking ability is expected to complement the offensive skills of star wings, Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin.
None of them were on the line with a real playoff spot in their first years in the NHL. As a bonus, Nylander would serve as a mentor to rookie Nicolas Backstrom, who would make his NHL debut that season. Nylander, like his fellow Swede, will help Backstrom adjust to the North American lifestyle and even keep Backstrom around for a while. This is where Backstrom’s close bond with Nylander’s son William (Maple Leaf) began.
At first, Backstrom lived with the Nylander family until he found his place. But he was still a frequent dinner guest at their home, playing ping-pong with Nylander’s children, including his then 11-year-old son William, who later became an NHL player himself.
Capitals head coach Glenn Halon talked about him earlier in the season.
“I have one rule, every time you wear the boots, work as hard as you can. That’s all we know about Michael. We had the advantage of having him here before; So we know exactly what he’s like and I’ve never met anyone more intense during practice or more prepared for a game.
The initial plan that season was for Viktor Kozlov to center the first line with Alex Ovechkin and Nylander and the second line with Semin. Backstrom will start as a left wing on the second line alongside Nylander and Semin as he adjusts to the North American ice.
Nylander has gotten off to a good start with the Capitals while on the second line. However, he injured his shoulder in a collision on December 1 against the Florida Panthers and missed the next four games. His shoulder didn’t improve and he needed rotator cuff surgery in mid-January and was out for the rest of the season.
During the season, he scored 11 goals and provided 26 assists in 40 games. His 37 points on the season were second only to Alex Ovechkin’s 33 goals and 21 assists.
With Nylander out for the year, the Capitals traded for Serge Fedorov to fill the void at center. While he was only meant to be on loan for the rest of 2007–08, he was so successful with the team that he returned for the 2008–09 season.
When Nylander returned for the 2008-09 season, he was third on the center depth chart behind Nicholas Backstrom and Sergei Fedorov, the top center at the end of 2007-08. With $4.875 million in earnings, Nylander was considered a liability from time to time. Stats-wise, Nylander played in 72 games, scoring 33 points (nine goals, 24 assists).
But he was mostly a healthy scratch late in the season and played in just three games during the playoffs. It was clear that he no longer fit into the Washington Capitals’ plan and his cap hit could be better used to improve areas of need such as defense.
The last two years
Neander did not play for the Capitals during the last two years of his contract. In the year He was loaned to the Grand Rapids Griffins, the AHL affiliate of the Detroit Red Wings, in October 2009 for the 2009-2010 season.He agreed to play there to gain game action and not take time away from his prospects at Hershey. During that season he was loaned to Jokerit Helsinki in the SM-Liga in Finland.
Before the start of the 2010–11 season, he was loaned to the Rochester Americans, the AHL affiliate of the Florida Panthers. He suffered a serious injury against Rochester in October and required season-ending spinal surgery.
Nylander’s contract expired at the end of the 2010-11 season. He never played in the NHL again but played hockey in Europe, in both the Swiss and Swedish leagues, before retiring as a player in 2015.
Under today’s collective bargaining agreement, teams cannot loan players to other teams because they can return before the 2012-13 season.
The Capitals’ signing of Michael Nylander made sense at the time since a veteran starting center was important. But then he got injured and was replaced by another player – Sergey Fedorov. Also, Nicolas Backstrom has emerged as a true number one center by then. The damage was seen as a cost that reduced his efficiency and hit a high salary cap.
Meanwhile, Michael’s son, William, became an NHL player himself with the Toronto Maple Leafs. He and Nicolas Backstrom fondly remember the time they lived with their families playing together at the IIHF World Championship.
By Diane Doyle
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