“Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers.”
-- Calvin Coolidge
Last November, NHL.com asked players their views on a number of topics, among them who they believed was the most underrated player in the league. Topping the list was Aleksander Barkov of the Florida Panthers, who was chosen by 10 of 56 players responding. Second was the Washington Capitals’ Nicklas Backstrom, with eight votes. Barkov was an understandable selection – a high draft pick (second overall in 2013), but still only 22 years old with barely 300 games of NHL experience. The range and depth of his talent, especially playing for a team that does not get a lot of attention, might be underappreciated among the broader hockey community.
Backstrom, on the other hand, was 30 years old, with 11 seasons and more than 800 games on his resume, not to mention coming off winning the Stanley Cup. Only once in nine seasons in which he appeared in 75 or more games going into last season did he ever post fewer than 15 goals (14 in 82 games in 2007-2008, his rookie season). Only once in that span did he record fewer than 50 assists (47 in 77 games in 2010-2011; he led the league with 60 assists in 2014-2015). Never did he record fewer than 65 points. Nine times he received votes for the Selke Trophy as the best defensive forward (high finish of seventh in 2016-2017). Six times he received votes for the Byng Trophy for gentlemanly play. He was on the 2007-2008 All-Rookie Team (and, perhaps fittingly, second in Calder Trophy voting for rookie of the year) and played in the 2016 All-Star Game. "Underrated," given the attention he gets across the league more broadly, would seem to be a fair question.
Odd Backstrom Fact…
Of 348 players having appeared in at least 500 games since 2007-2008, Backstrom’s rookie season, only Sidney Crosby averages more assists per game (0.80) than Backstrom (0.72).
Bonus Odd Backstrom Fact… No player since Backstrom came into the league in 2007-2008 has more games with three or more assists than Backstrom (42). Sidney Crosby has 39, and Ryan Getzlaf is far behind in third with 30.
That Nicklas Backstrom is among the most gifted offensive producers in the league over the last decade and change is accepted less than it is appreciated. Since he came into the league, two active players have at least 225 goals and at least 600 assists. Backstrom is one (231/642). Sidney Crosby is the other (371/623). That’s the list. He and Crosby are tied for the most seasons over that span (since 2007-2008) with at least 20 goals and at least 50 assists (six). He, Crosby, and Tyler Seguin are the only players in the league to have posted 70 or more points in each of the last six seasons (and, he was a point per game player in the abbreviated 2012-2013 season, or that streak might be seven seasons).
Backstrom had a bit of a rough time on the road last season. For only the third time in his career, and the first time since 2013-2014, he was a “minus” player on the road (minus-6). He also had his worst performance in the faceoff circle (48.6 percent) since his rookie season (46.3 percent). It was only the second time since he finished at 49.9 percent in 2009-2010 that he was under 50 percent (48.6 percent in 2015-2016). And, he was charged with more giveaways (62) than in any season since 2008-2009 (62, tied for most in his career for a season). His 18 power play assists were his fewest for a season in which he played 75 or more games since 2010-2011, when he had 18 in 77 games; only in the injury shortened 2011-2012 season (16) and abbreviated 2012-2013 season (15) did he have fewer.
Potential Milestones to Reach in 2019-2020:
- 900 games played (he needs five)
- Fourth place games played in franchise history (he needs 45 to tie Kelly Miller)
- Third place in games played in franchise history (he needs 66 to tie Peter Bondra)
- 700 career assists (he needs 58)
- 54th in career assists (currently tied for 67th, if he has those 58 assists, he would pass 12 players on thea all-time list, 13 if Ryan Getzlaf does not record 38 assists this season)
- Top-ten all time in goal scoring among players born in Sweden (currently 19th, he needs 20 goals to tie Mats Naslund for tenth)
- Top-five all time in assists among players born in Sweden (currently sixth, he needs six to tie Daniel Sedin for fifth)
- All-time leader franchise history in playing every regular season game (currently with six, tied with Karl Alzner)
- 150 multi-assist games (currently the franchise leader with 147 career multi-assist games)
- Second place in total franchise games with at least one point (currently with 535; needs two to tie Peter Bondra for second place)
The Big Question… Is Nicklas Backstrom “underrated?”
In an NHL poll published in early August, Nicklas Backstrom ranked 18th among NHL centers. This poll was conducted of NHL Network producers and analysts, not players. Seven of the 17 players ranked ahead of him are age 23 or younger. Only three –Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and Boston’s Patrice Bergeron – are older than Backstrom. None of those three have ever been labeled “underrated.”
For Backstrom, that was a significant drop from his 14th place ranking in 2018 and a precipitous drop from his fifth-place ranking in 2017.
Backstrom did much “better” in a poll of players taken by the NHL Players Association. He finished second as most underrated player (11.4 percent) to Barkov (21.5 percent) with 405 players participating. Underrated being a term than connotes a significant game between perceived skill/talent/contribution and actual, the players ranking Backstrom this highly says something about the respect he has among the rank and file.
However, in a way, Backstrom might be a victim of his own consistency. In those three seasons he recorded 23, 21, and 22 goals, respectively, and his point total went from 86 to 71 to 74. He missed only three games in that span. And if one looks at the longer view, he has been almost a point per game player over 12 seasons (0.98), during which he varied, plus or minus 0.10 point per game from 1.00, in only four seasons.
Backstrom being underrated has become a perennial opinion, almost its own meme. He also seems to suffer from being the primary set-up man over the years for one of the greatest goal scorers of all time. That Alex Ovechkin has a more ebullient personality seems to contribute to this part of the issue as well.
If anything is going to reveal Backstrom’s “value,” it is the next contract he signs. When he signed his current deal that began with the 2010-2011 season, his $6.7 million cap hit encumbered 11.3 percent of the $59.4 million cap. Assuming the 2020-2021 cap increases by the same percentage as that between last year and this coming season (2.5 percent), the cap would be $83.6 million. A deal that duplicated his expiring contract in terms of cap share would pay him $9.4 million per season. At age 32 when that contract would kick in, it is hard to imagine Backstrom commanding that kind of compensation. That would put him in the top-20 in cap hit among those players under contract for the 2019-2020 season. However, is that number all that unbelievable when one looks at some of the names with bigger numbers following their names – Mark Stone ($9.5 million), Jamie Benn (9.5 million),Tyler Seguin ($9.8 million), Artemi Panarin ($11.6 million). There are many factors that go into a contract negotiation, and money is not always an appropriate way to assign competitive value in sports, but one thinks (hopes) that the Caps have a clear understanding as to whether Backstrom is “underrated” or not. It is one of the big sub-plots to the coming season.
In the end…
Nicklas Backstrom is among the most talented, accomplished, and dependable players in the history of the Capitals franchise. His consistency is almost as much a marvel as Ovechkin’s goal scoring over more than a decade. He shows no signes of slowing down, and in fact, his game would seem to be one that will age well, even in an era where speed matters (this might be Backstrom’s biggest shortcoming). He sees the ice as well as anyone in the league, his ability to improvise passes on the fly is matched only by his ability to see several moves ahead to where he will make a deft pass. His shot is, if anything, underrated (that word again) but efficient (higher than 12.5 shooting percentage in each of the last four seasons). Here, too, he displays a remarkable consistency in unleashing that shot, averaging slightly more than two shots per game over his career (2.13) and displaying a season-to-season consistency in that regard.
Backstrom certainly does not get the press that his level of accomplishment and the company he keeps in a variety of statistical categories over the years suggests. What he has is the maturity – the wisdom – that enables him to continue performing at that level of play year after year. It will come in handy this season, especially with the controversy swirling around Evgeny Kuznetsov. One hopes that while this season is successful enough to warrant a large pay day at the end as his contract expires, the next one will keep him in Washington for years to come.
Projection: 80 games, 22-62-84, plus-8
Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images North America