Theme: “Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning.”
-- Benjamin Franklin
Since the NHL returned from its lockout for the 2005-2006 season, 14 different players have reached the 100-point mark. Of that group, only four reached it at a younger age than Nicklas Backstrom – Eric Staal, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Alex Ovechkin. Not bad company. Getting there for Backstrom has been an example of steady progress. In three seasons his goal totals have jumped from 14 to 22 to 33; his assists from 55 to 66 to 68, and his points from 69 to 88 to 101. He also has done it while playing in each of the 246 games over the past three regular seasons.
Backstrom was a model of consistency last season, registering at least one point in 55 of 82 games and had streaks of at least two games without a point only five times all season. He had 13 games in which he recorded at least three points, including two five-point games.
Backstrom’s steady improvement over his three-year career has placed him among the most dangerous offensive talents in the NHL, but he has improved other aspects of his game in a less conspicuous manner. His blocked shot totals have improved from 34 to 46 to 62; and his game has acquired a more physical edge. Although he has yet to be sent off for a major penalty, the occurrences of physical penalties such as roughing, slashing, boarding, etc. have increased from two to four to nine last season. His faceoff winning percentage improved as well. From a 46.3 percent winning percentage in his rookie year, he improved to 48.7 percent and then to 49.9 percent last year. With that improvement he has been asked to take more responsibility in the circle, taking 18.5 percent of the Caps’ faceoffs in 2007-2008, 24.5 percent in 2008-2009, and 27.1 percent last season.
He has shown himself to be a capable playoff performer, having gone 12-18-30, plus-13 in 28 career playoff games. Last spring he looked to be on his way to a Conn Smythe kind of post season, going 5-4-9, plus-eight in the first four games of the opening round series against Montreal, including a hat trick (and the overtime game-winner) in Game 2. But in the last three games he was held without a point and saw his shot total drop from 20 in Games 1-4 to seven in Games 5-7, perhaps the product of a shoulder injury suffered in Game 3.
It was an odd finish to a spectacular year for Backstrom, one in which he showed his mettle against top competition. In 28 games against Eastern Conference teams that would make the playoffs he was 10-29-39, plus-23, including two goals and ten assists in four games against Eastern Conference champion Philadelphia. His performance was rewarded with a ten-year, $67 million contract that ensures that he and linemate Alex Ovechkin will be skating together for the next decade in Washington.
Fearless: You might remember that when Backstrom was drafted, there was the odd comment or two comparing him to Peter Forsberg. Well, both had their first 100-point season at age 22. Both had their first 30-goal season at age 22. Both had their first 200-shot season at age 22.
Cheerless: Forsberg had his first Stanley Cup at age 22.
In the end…
Backstrom has to be on the short list of the top centers in the game, and he is still on the upward curve of his developmental arc. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that he will be a 30-70-100 player for some years to come. He and Alex Ovechkin are one of the most lethal duos on the power play in the league (the second highest power play point total among teammates in the NHL last year, behind Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos of Tampa Bay). No center in the league had a higher goals for/on ice per 60 minutes at 5-on-4 than did Backstrom (numbers from behindthenet.ca), and it was not close – almost 13 percent higher than that of Jonathan Toews of Chicago.
He was also a very effective player at even strength. Among centers playing in at least 50 games last year, his goals on/goals off ice differential per 60 minutes (2.15) led the league and did so by a wide margin – more than 11 percent over Vancouver’s Henrik Sedin (numbers from behindthenet.ca).
An aspect of Backstrom’s game that does not get as much attention is his presence on the penalty kill. Among Caps playing at least half of the season’s games in Washington last year, he finished sixth in shorthanded ice time among forwards. And although he finished 44th (among 88 centers) in goals against/on ice per 60 minutes at 4-on-5, he has shown a certain fearlessness in his approach to the job…
One could make an argument that Backstrom is the Capitals indispensable player. There simply is no replacement for him anywhere on the roster or in the Capitals’ system. Given the responsibilities Backstrom shoulders – centering the top line, manning the first power play, paying his dues on the penalty kill, taking (and improving) a larger share of faceoffs – it is hard to believe he is still only 22 with fewer than 250 games of regular season experience in the NHL. The kind of production he provides, not to mention the consistency, is the sort of thing one might expect in a player much older. But what is most noteworthy about Backstrom’s brief career to date is the progression. To have increased his goal scoring by more than double over his rookie year, to have increased his assists by almost a quarter and his total points by almost 50 percent in three seasons is nothing short of amazing.
To expect those kinds of leaps this year is likely a stretch. A 40-80-120 season might be a fantasy league players dream, but not a likely result. Still, if he produces at last year’s level, it will still place him among the league scoring leaders. And, if he should improve on what are already rather impressive career playoff numbers, the improvement will be in how deep the Capitals go next spring on their quest for a Stanley Cup