Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.
-- Jonathan Swift
Since Nicklas Backstrom came into the league in 2007-2008, only three players have more assists – Henrik Sedin, Joe Thornton, and Martin St. Louis. Only Sedin, Thornton, Sidney Crosby, and Evgeni Malkin have more assists per game. Sure, a lot of those assists are finishes by Alex Ovechkin, but this is like the case of the chicken or the egg. Ovechkin wouldn’t have as many goals without a center of Backstrom’s talent, Backstrom wouldn’t have as many assists without a finisher of Ovechkin’s talent.
The fact of the matter is that Backstrom has taken advantage of the talent around him to be one of the most consistent players of his generation. Over 495 career regular season games, Backstrom has 494 points. He was every bit as consistent in 2013-2014 with 79 points in 82 games. How he got there was a bit different, though. He had a career low in even strength assists in seasons in which he played at least 50 games (23) while posting a career best 38 power play assists for the league’s second-ranked power play.
What was not his career best was his plus-minus. Only five centers were worse than Backstrom’s minus-20 last season, the worst in his seven-year career. And, no center with as many points as Backstrom recorded last year (79) was close to that minus-20 (Jason Spezza had 66 points and was a minus-26). By itself his plus-minus has limited value to explain, but it was part of a larger problem the club had at even strength last season.
The best thing that can be said about Backstrom’s 2013-2014 season as far as his plus-minus is concerned is that it was an anomaly in the context of his career to date. He had been a plus-94 in six seasons going into last year. The Caps were just such a mess at even strength last season. They were 23rd in 5-on-5 goal ratio; no team lower than 17th made the playoffs. It was the first time since Backstrom arrived in Washington that the Caps were below 1.00 in that measure.
While plus-minus is a team measure, Backstrom occupies such a central role in the Caps’ scheme that he is a reflection of that outcome. However, the fact that last year’s results, both for Backstrom and the Caps, were out of the recent norm at evens suggest that the problem can be corrected. That might be at least as much a matter of how much a coaching change matters as whether Backstrom’s individual execution on the ice is lacking.
Last season at this time Fearless said, “One would like to see better possession numbers from Backstrom and the top line.” Well, we did not see them. He was 220th among 375 forwards playing in at least 40 games in Corsi-on ice at 5-on-5. Compare that to his finishing 139th among 395 forwards playing in at least 20 games of the abbreviated 2012-2013 season.* Are his numbers an anomaly (whatever that is), or is there a trend happening here? Then there is his shooting. Backstrom has been either really good over his career (three seasons at 12.5 percent or better) or not really as good (three seasons at 9.5 percent or worse).
It is not all on offense, though. In his first four seasons his ratio of goals for to goals against on ice at 5-on-5 ranged from 1.25 to 1.95. In each of the last three seasons it was 1.24 or lower, and in two of them it was below 1.00.
The Big Question… Is it coaching, is it Ovechkin, or is it Backstrom?
Nicklas Backstrom is a point a game player. That is as reliable a prognostication as can be made of any Capital. However, there does seem to have been an erosion in Backstrom’s game at even strength, and it might not be restricted to one end of the ice. At the defensive end it might or might not be associated with the iffy coaching schemes of the last three seasons, it might or might not be a product of his association with the oft-criticized defense of his linemate Alex Ovechkin, it might or might not be a product of teams matching strength to strength on Backstrom’s line, it might or might not be a product of some dim after effect of his concussion in 2011-2012, or it might be some combination of these or other factors.
At the offensive end, Backstrom was 37th in the league in even strength points (34). This is not a neighborhood where you might find an elite center. It is where you find Tyler Johnson (34 points), Franz Nielsen (35), Alex Kilhorn (33), or former Capital Mathieu Perreault,, who had the same 34 even strength points but did it in just 69 games. It was not even a neighborhood in which you might have found Backstrom before last season. He had 30 even strength points in 48 games in 2012-2013, and last year was the first in his career in which he did not average at least half a point per game at even strength (0.41).
For whatever reason or reasons, Backstrom has been slipping into sub-1.00 goals for to goals against ratio at evens over the last three seasons. For the Caps to be successful this season, Backstrom might improve on his even strength offense, but given his history of consistency around that point a game level of performance, any improvement there would seem likely to be limited. If there is going to be improvement – in Backstrom’s plus-minus, in the Caps’ even strength performance, in more wins than losses, -- it seems likely that most of the attention will have to be directed toward allowing fewer goals. And for that, Backstrom has to be more the player he was in his first four seasons than that which he has been over the last three.
In the end…
As much as Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom is the indispensable Capital. There is no substitute for him anywhere in the Capitals system. Sure, down the road Evgeny Kuznetsov might be a top-flight center. Ditto for Andre Burakovsky, but these are potentials at best, pipe dreams at worst. In the here and now, Nicklas Backstrom has to be and play like a top-line center.
He is, as he has been, the epitome of the playmaking center, but his goal scoring has been a bit disappointing over the last two seasons, especially at even strength. It is unlikely he will ever return to that 33-goal season in 2009-2010 (22 at even strength), when it seemed every Capitals set a career high in something on offense. But being a 16-goal per 82 game player that he has been over the last two seasons needs some improving. Look at it this way. Three seasons ago he scored 11 even strength goals in 42 games. Last season Backstrom scored 11 even strength goals in 82 games.
You might have thought that the quote above refers to Nicklas Backstrom’s vision on the ice that makes him one of the premier playmakers of his generation. It applies at least as much to Capitals fans who think Backstrom is a premier center right now. He is not, not in that top tier anyway. That vision might be clouded by remembrance of his 101-point season in 2009-2010 or his ability to consistently score at a point a game pace. However, in the last two seasons he seems in his own way to have become as much a product of the Caps’ power play as Alex Ovechkin. For the Caps to return to the post-season in 2015 he is going to have to improve his performance at even strength, and in that at both ends of the ice. It is entirely possible that he will still be that point a game player, but if the mix between even strength and power play points tilts more toward the even strength side of the ledger, with fewer goals against when he is on the ice, the Caps might be better off for it.
Projection: 82 games, 20-63-83, plus-8