Theme: “Comeback is a good word, man.”
-- Mickey Rourke
In his first three seasons Nicklas Backstrom played in all 246 games for the Washington Capitals and averaged 23 goals and 63 assists for an 86-point average, and he averaged a plus-22. He was just about as effective in the post season, going 12-18-30, plus-13 in 28 games. In his fourth season he played in each of the Caps’ first 61 games and took a 15-38-53 scoring line into Pittsburgh against the Penguins in Game 62. But in that game he took a slash in the left hand from Penguin defenseman Kris Letang that fractured his thumb. Backstrom dressed for each of the next six games but then left the lineup for five games because of the lingering injury.
Since that injury Backstrom has played in 58 of 103 regular season games (he missed 40 games last season to a concussion) and is 17-39-56, plus-4. Productivity has not been the problem. Being in the lineup has. The good news, being where you can find it in these things, is that starting with the last regular season game of last season (his fourth after returning from the concussion) and through 13 playoff games he was 3-7-10, plus-3. Not bad for a guy with half a season’s worth of rust being thrust into the playoff grind.
His underlying statistics at 5-on-5 have a strange quality to them. Between the 2010-2011 season and the 2011-2012 season the quality of competition Backstrom faced diminished (ninth of 153 centers appearing in 40 or more games compared to 112th of 164 in 2011-2012). His Corsi values, perhaps unexpectedly given the competition, also dropped (13th of 153 centers in 2010-2011 to 48th in 2011-2012). And when quality of competition was factored into that result, the drop was equally precipitous (56th to 130th). And it was not as if his zone starts and finishes were much different – 51.0 percent offensive zone starts in 2010-2011, 52.2 percent in 2011-2012; the offensive zone finishes being 51.5 percent and 52.1 percent for the two seasons. Of course, Alexander Ovechkin being his most frequent linemate in both seasons and Ovechkin experiencing a production decline of his own, a complementary effect is suggested (all numbers from behindthenet.ca).
Nevertheless, Backstrom still averages just over a point a game over his 365-game NHL career so far. He is one of only eight active centers who has played in more than 300 games since Lockout I and has averaged more than a point a game. He is fifth among active centers in assists per game since Lockout I.
Thumbs heal, and time passes. Backstrom fared rather well in the playoffs after returning from his concussion. For example, he faced the eighth stiffest level of competition at 5-on-5 among centers playing in at least ten games and had a corresponding 30th-ranked quality of teammates. He finished 14th among that group of centers playing in at least 10 playoff games in differential of goals scored-on ice per 60 minutes to goals against scored on ice. His +0.54 in that statistic is probably more impressive given the Caps’ choice to play as conservatively as they did.
Yeah, yeah. How do you like these numbers… 101-65-44… plus-37, plus-24, minus-4… 11-4-3…37-22-19. Those would be points, plus-minus, power play goals, and power play points for Backstrom over the last three seasons. And he is the number one center. Three seasons ago he was on ice for 0.78 goals against a game. That number was 0.65 in 2010-2011. Last year… 0.90. These numbers are not going in the right direction.
The Big Question… Will Nicklas Backstrom be centering Alex Ovechkin on the top line, or will he be centering…something on the second line as Mike Ribeiro centers Ovechkin?
Just when the Caps solve one problem, another one pops up. Since dinosaurs roamed the earth, it seems, the Caps have been searching for a second-line center. That problem looked to be solved when the Caps signed Mike Ribeiro away from Dallas as a free agent (edit: if by "free agent" you mean "return for Cody Eakin and a second round draft pick in a trade"...thank you, dear reader). But with neither Mike Knuble nor Alexander Semin being re-signed, the Caps do not have any proven finishers on the wings on the second line (yes, Knuble struggled mightily last season, but he had been a reliable 20-goal scorer before that). The Caps could rotate a number of players through those spots, including (but not limited to): Brooks Laich, Jason Chimera, Marcus Johansson, Wojtek Wolski, or even Mathieu Perreault. Will Backstrom’s greater familiarity with this group suggest matching him to some combination of this group on a second line?
In the end…
Over the last two seasons the Capitals are 68-38-13 in games when Backstrom dressed (a 47-26-9, 103-point pace). When he did not, the Caps were 22-17-6 (a 40-31-11, 91-point pace). He is central, in a manner of speaking, to the Capitals’ success. But after three seasons of iron-man durability, injuries crept into his game, and there is the concern that such things might follow him around. Productivity is not the concern with Backstrom. Even missing half a season last year he averaged nearly a point per game.
The Capitals struggled on offense in general and on the power play specifically last season. The lack of a reliable top-line center for half the season had a lot to do with that. With regard to the latter, consider this. Backstrom finished the season 3-16-19 on the power play in 42 games and 140 total power play minutes. The other six nominal centers – combined – went 8-11-19 in 403 man-games and 453 total power play minutes.
When he was concussed by Calgary’s Rene Bourque on January 3rd Backstrom was on a pace to threaten his career high in power play points for a season (42 points in 2008-2009). Getting that level of production back could be the difference between the 2012-2013 Caps struggling to make the playoffs, as they did last season, and winning the Southeast and threatening for an Eastern Conference title. If Backstrom makes a comeback, chances are that the Caps will, too. And that will make “comeback” a very good word, indeed.
Projection: 79 games, 24-65-89, plus-22
Photo: Elsa/Getty Images North America