Signing Michael Nylander in the summer of 2007 was wise and savvy and, you might recall, somewhat controversial. The previous season in New York with the Rangers, all Nylander achieved was 83 points in 79 games — his best NHL season ever. How couldn’t he pile up points centering Alexander Ovechkin? I was a little worried about the back-end years of the four-year deal he inked with the Caps, particularly in like 2009, when he’d be 37 and delivering a cap hit to the Caps of just a hair under $5 million, but in the summer of 2007, Nylander was just what the doctor ordered for a skilled-center-starved Caps’ club.
The Capitals were welcoming 19-year-old Nicklas Backstrom to Washington that autumn, with no certainty how successful he’d be as an NHL rookie. He hadn’t played much hockey on an NHL-sized sheet. It seemed prudent and wise to not foist no. 1 pivot pressure on the rookie; bringing back Backstrom’s veteran countryman seemed to promise a perfect bit of on- and off-ice mentoring, and allow the club to slot the rookie in a less pressure role on the Capitals’ second or third lines.
And Nylander, skating in Glen Hanlon’s highly structured, deliberate attack, fairly thrived out of the gate in the 2007-08 season. He went for nearly a point per game (37 in 40) before suffering a rotator cuff tear that ended his season. But a last-in-the-East standing at Thanksgiving in 2007 precipitated a coaching change, and as his strong-skating teammates gradually embraced and thrived in Bruce Boudreau’s system, Nylander emerged as an ill-fitting component. All of a sudden there was no home to be found for an East-West pivot in a North-South system.
At long last the Capitals have parted ways with Michael Nylander. And despite the fact that Nylander still has a year remaining on his pact with the Caps, this is no temporary parting. Next year, in his final year with the Caps, Michael Nylander’s salary dips to $3 million, but more importantly, he loses his no-trade leverage. Even more importantly, the Capitals on Monday removed Nylander’s name from his locker, replacing it with new callup Kyle Wilson’s. It’s not going back up. The hunch here is that no matter how the rest of 09′-10 goes for Nyls in Grand Rapids, he won’t seek a repeat of this fall and its uncertainty, isolation, and torment. If he positions himself in the right system next season, somewhere, there is the outside shot he could earn one more pro hockey contract — almost certainly in Europe.
This isn’t a separation with the feint possibility of reconciliation but rather a much-needed divorce.
The Capitals and Michael Nylander this fall have been like the embittered, crumbling couple doing everything to avoid crossing paths with one another at home. Nylander didn’t much show up at Kettler, and the Caps didn’t much want him there. I remember being struck by how out of place Michael Nylander looked in the very opening hours of September training camp: all of his teammates were all smiles and jokes, thrilled to be reunited and tagged as serious Cup contenders heading into the new season. But Nylander was never a part of the frivolity and camaraderie, on or off the ice. He seemed isolated even in packs of Caps gathered around Bruce Boudreau during drill instructions. I remember writing at the time that he hovered about the training facility as bit of a ghost. It was ghastly. It wasn’t long before Nylander became an actual ghost there.
The Capitals besting Edmonton back in the summer of 2007 for Michael Nylander’s services may well have come down to a fourth year in the terms as well as a no-movement clause that afforded Nylander some stability for his family. George McPhee hasn’t made much of a habit of doling those out in his 12 years in D.C., and on Monday he told media that he “won’t be doing it in the future.” He also said, “The way our team developed he just wasn’t a good fit. There’s not much you can do – that happens in this business.”
Today it looks like Edmonton got the better of that dispute with the Caps, but that’s 20-20 hindsight, and at the time it was terribly important for the Capitals to win a high-profile battle for a coveted free agent. It was with the acquisition of Michael Nylander that the post-lockout Caps first appeared playoff viable. They did make the playoffs that season, but Sergei Fedorov was the aging skilled center helping to make it happen. It was Fedorov’s acquisition that signaled the bell tolling for Michael Nylander in Washington.
Nylander was such a poor fit for Gabby’s system that the Caps couldn’t possibly dress him to try and showcase him for other NHL clubs. Instead, they dispatched him to Grand Rapids of the American League, but even two weeks of productive hockey with the Griffins wasn’t enough to entice even the most injury-ravaged NHL clubs to bite on Nyls’ bank-breaking deal.
The story of Michael Nylander’s second and thoroughly unsuccessful engagement in Washington is the story of the business of hockey, as George McPhee noted — swiftly altering circumstances, a bad injury, a rapidly developing, highly cohesive, strong skating young roster casting as outsider one of its costliest, older parts. Club management and the coaching staff have, as they should have, downplayed the distraction component to this saga, but there can be no mistaking the fact that the Capitals are a healthier hockey club this morning than they were a week ago, with notable salary cap wiggle room. For the rest of the Eastern conference, that can’t be good news.