The Washington Capitals loaned center Michael Nylander to Grand Rapids of the AHL (Detroit's affiliate) this week, in an attempt to find some playing time for the 37-year-old Swede. To what result, at this point, is anyone's guess.
The conditioning assignment can last up to two weeks, and the team has already indicated he'll play in Friday's home opener and Monday's tilt for Grand Rapids.
Nylander will still count toward the Capitals' roster limit and salary cap.
The veteran pivot has not appeared for the Capitals in a game—regular, postseason, or preseason—since Game Three of the first round playoffs last season against the New York Rangers.
It's been a disappointing run wearing the red of Washington for Nylander. Once considered one of the finest playmakers in the game, he's been relegated to the fate of being loaned out to another team's affiliate just in order to garner playing time.
Just two seasons ago, Nylander manned the helm of the Rangers top scoring line, dishing out 56 and 57 assists in consecutive years. But in two seasons with the Caps, he has totalled just 50 helpers combined . To say that he does not mesh well into coach Bruce Boudreau's system is an understatement.
With the Capitals, Nylander should be enjoying his finest seasons, with some of the best finishers in the game. You might have heard of a couple of them, both named Alex (Ovechkin and Semin).
Yet, he found his way to the bench in last season's playoffs after appearing in 72 games in the regular season, and has not been out on the sheet for the Caps since, despite being healthy and practicing on a regular basis.
The Caps would like nothing better than to find a permanent place for Nylander to finish his accomplished career. However, the burden he carries is his contract, the no-movement clause (NMC) associated with it, and the hit it takes on the Caps salary cap.
For now, Washington's general manager George McPhee is fine—he has enough bodies and enough flexibility under the cap to manage his roster.
But when Tomas Fleischmann comes off the Long Term Injured Reserve (LTIR) in a couple of games, his salary will again count against the cap and Washington will have to put a defenseman (or two) though waivers to send them down to the minors.
That situation has already cost the team the services of Chris Bourque, waived after he was told he'd made the opening night roster, and was claimed by Pittsburgh, of all teams. Washington does not relish the idea of losing Tyler Sloan or any of the other NHL-quality defensemen on the squad.
Even if they get past that hurdle unscathed, Nylander's situation (his cap number is $4.875 million) is keeping the team from negotiating long-term deals for Semin and Mike Green, both due considerable raises going forward.
And then, you have to look at it from Nylander's point of view. All he wants to do is play and make the money for the contract he signed in good faith two seasons ago. He's 37, and while a trade to an NHL team—considering his contract—is difficult, he can certainly be loaned to a foreign team so the Caps can claim some salary cap relief.
There have been rumors since training camp of Washington moving Nylander to Russia, Sweden, and elsewhere, but so far no deals have gone through.
Perhaps this "conditioning assignment" is a tryout for a specific team to see that indeed, Nylander is in shape and able to help out a club in need.
Perhaps it's akin to a yard sale: "Come see what we have on display, big discounts on Swedish centers (not named Nicklas Backstrom)."
Or perhaps, it's just a chance to let a veteran player get a few games in to show the rest of the NHL that he can still play.
Whatever the true reason, the Caps need to find a permanent solution. Because if they have to carry Nylander's contract all season, it will become a distraction in Boudreau's locker room and severely limit McPhee's roster, especially when the trade deadline comes around.
They can't keep hoping to place players on the LTIR to get around making a deal.