Sunday, September 13, 2009

2009-2010 Previews -- Forwards: Nicklas Backstrom

Nicklas Backstrom

Theme: “In the long run, men hit only what they aim at. Therefore, they had better aim at something high.”

Henry David Thoreau wrote that in “Walden,” reflecting on one’s dedication to purpose. For a young professional, it might better be rephrased, “set a high bar for your goals.” Nicklas Backstrom has played in two NHL seasons, and his improvement from his first year to his second was dramatic. Playing in all 82 games in each year, Backstrom improved…

- Goal scoring from 14 to 22
- Assists from 55 to 66
- Points from 69 to 88
- Plus-minus from +13 to +16
- Power play goals from three to 14
- Power play assists from 22 to 28
- Power play points from 25 to 42
- Faceoff winning percentage from 46.3 to 48.7 percent
- Takeaways from 72 to 77
- Blocked shots from 34 to 46
- Hits from 34 to 52
- Shooting percentage from 9.2 to 12.6 percent
- Shots from 153 to 174
- Ice time from 18:59 to 19:56

And keep in mind, Backstrom was a Calder Trophy finalist in that first year. We’re not thinking that Backstrom will enjoy as proportional an improvement in 2009-2010 that he had in 2008-2009 – doing so would leave him 35-79-114, +20, with 71 power play points. But is entirely possible that he will realize a significant improvement with Mike Knuble skating on his right wing, who should be an improvement (productivity-wise) over Viktor Kozlov.

While Backstrom is acknowledged as a fine player, he doesn’t get much due as one of the elite centers in the league. He flies under the radar of the twins in Pittsburgh – Crosby and Malkin – and even Datsyuk, Savard, Thornton, and Getzlaf. Well, he was tied for fifth among centers in total scoring last year. He was tied for third in assists. He was tied for 15th in plus-minus. He led all centers in power play scoring. Did we mention he won’t turn 22 until late November? Of the top 40 scorers among centers last year, only Jonathan Toews (who finished 18th) is younger than Backstrom. Guys?...

Fearless: Cuz, you’ve made a point about Alex Ovechkin being a model of consistency. Well, Backstrom seems pretty consistent himself. In two seasons the longest stretch he’s gone without a point is five games (twice). He has points in 16 of 21 playoff games. After only two seasons, he’s already 37th on the all-time Capitals points scoring list and 32nd on the assists list. Of the top-50 scorers in Caps history, Backstrom is seventh in points per game (0.96).

Cheerless: Yeah, about those consecutive games without a point, cuz. Both times he had those five straight games without a point – one in each of his two seasons – they came within the first dozen games of the season. In fact, his Octobers have been pretty… well, they haven’t been pretty. 20 October games, 0-9-9, -1.

Well, we’re not so much concerned with what Backstrom does in October as what he does in the spring. In 36 regular season games he’s played over two seasons, Backstrom is 10-29-39, +17. In 21 playoff games, he is 7-14-21, +6. Not bad for a player who will not turn 22 for a couple of months yet.

But if there are comparisons to be made, the consistent standard to which Backstrom has been compared since he was drafted is fellow countryman Peter Forsberg. If you look at the raw numbers from their respective second seasons, it is no comparison. Backstrom improved considerably in his second season, finishing 22-66-88, +16. On the other hand, Forsberg finished his second season 30-86-116, +26. You’d look at those numbers and say Backstrom has some work to do to be “the next Forsberg.” Well, Backstrom might not be the next Forsberg, especially in the edge with which Forsberg played (he would leap from 47 PIMs in that second season to 73, 94, and 108 in the next three years) and perhaps in Forsberg’s propensity for Crosbying… uh, diving.

However, Backstrom’s second season with the Caps was not entirely unlike Forsberg’s in terms of production. In 1995-1996, Forsberg did finish with those 116 points (his top point-producing season of his career), but the league leader that year finished with 161 points (Mario Lemieux). In that season, Forsberg finished with 43.5 percent of the goals scored by the league leader (Lemieux – 69), 93.5 percent of the assists of the league leader (Lemieux, Ron Francis – 92), and 77.9 percent of the points scored by the league leader (Lemieux – 161). The comparable numbers for Backstrom are 39.3 percent of the goals of the league leader (Alex Ovechkin – 56), 84.6 percent of the assists tallied by the league leader (Evgeni Malkin – 78), and 77.9 percent of the total points for the league leader (Maikin – 113). Relative to the offensive leaders in those respective seasons, Forsberg and Backstrom are more similar than one might think at first glance.

Backstrom has enough goal scorers around him that he could take a run at the top assist spot in the NHL this year and a run at 100 points. We don’t think he’ll hit either mark, but that won’t be a function of his rate of improvement as much as the fact that the second line for the Caps should be more productive, more consistently than it was last year with the addition of Brendan Morrison and the continued progress of Alexander Semin. But he should still make it close…


82 games, 25-69-94, +19

2009 Training Camp -- Day 1


That seemed to be the tone of today’s opening of Capitals’ training camp as three squads took the ice. One could tell, perhaps, that it also was the opening weekend for the NFL as the Kettler Capitals Iceplex stands were not filled for today’s session. We’re guessing 80-90 percent filled.

For the record, the Zamboni (or Olympia ice resurfacer, if you prefer) took the ice at 9:35 to lay down the ice sheet, and Alex Ovechkin was the first Capital to take the ice as a member of Group A. Speaking of which, the lines looked like this in the morning session…

Osala-Boyd Gordon-Kugryshev
Fehr wore the yellow jersey, as he is still limited in his rehabilitation after shoulder surgery.

The defensemen were:


And the goalies:


Braden Holtby was the first casualty of camp, skating off midway through the session, although he did return after the ice was resurfaced. Unfortunately, he did not look comfortable upon his return and left the ice for the day before the session ended. He was reported to have a groin pull, but it wasn’t considered a serious problem. Todd Ford took over for the remainder of the session in Holtby’s stead.

The forwards looked far ahead of the defense, although it’s early. Joel Broda was one forward, though, who seemed to have a devil of a time finishing plays, but he looked quick out there. Nicklas Backstrom looked pretty sharp, especially in one-on-one drills against the defense, as he took the puck to the net smartly in several turns. But again, it was a difficult day for the defense, at least in the Group A session.

The Group B squad looked like this…

Bruess-Mitchell-Finley (and Jasinsky also in white)
Andrew Gordon-Perreault-Kane





This was a distinctly less intense session than the Group A session. It just seemed as though the guys lacked a certain jump. The exception was Varlamov, who did look quite sharp. We did not have an opportunity to stay for the Group C session, but we’re guessing that astute Caps fan can probably find more than enough re-cap in the usual places. For now, here are some pics of the Group A and Group B sessions…