Saturday, April 26, 2008

The 2007-2008 season, by the "tens" -- Centers: Nicklas Backstrom

A lot sooner than we’d like to have done, we’ll be looking at the Caps over the next few days and weeks, both individually and in groups. The focus will be on “the tens” – the progression of ten-game splits for the players and the team from start to finish. First up, the centers...

Nicklas Backstrom:

Theme: “Class is in Session”

That Backstrom improved over the course of the year should be of no shock to Caps fans. However, the progress was rather stunning over the course of time. There are likely a combination of reasons for that – an increasing comfort level with the NHL game, moving from the wing to center, playing with Alex Ovechkin, improvements in skill level, the different approach to the game taken by a new coach, whatever.

There are a couple of items in the numbers that are worth pointing out. First, it wasn’t the goal-scoring that experienced such an improvement, but his assist production. Backstrom had a total of eight assists through 20 games; he never had fewer than seven in any 10-game stretch (including the last dozen, which we include as one element) over the rest of the year.

One could argue that this was a product of playing with Ovechkin. In fact, of those eight assists Backstrom had in his first 20 games, only one (a secondary assist) came on a goal scored by Ovechkin. In his last 61 games, over which he had 47 assists, Backstrom had 20 assists on Ovechkin goals (12 primary, 8 secondary). But Backstrom found a way to get involved with the big scorers in general. He had nine assists on goals by Viktor Kozlov (three primary, five secondary) and eight more on goals by Alexander Semin (four of each type). That’s 37 of 47 assists in his last 61 games to three of the top five goal scorers on the team. There is a certain chicken-and-the-egg aspect to this – were the goals scored because of Backstrom’s contributions, or were Backstrom’s assists a product of good finishers. Well, probably both, but Backstrom’s production improved in that aspect of the game for which he is most heralded. Caps fans should be rather pleased with the result.

One other thing on the matter of assists – we’ve made quite a to-do about the consistency of Alexander Ovechkin. Well, what fits hand in glove with that – for this year – is that since the change in coaches, Backstrom never went more than two games consecutively without recording at least one assist.

Backstrom also became more assertive in his offensive game as the season progressed, reflected in this shots on goal numbers. Thr progression from ten-game to ten-game split was almost entirely in an upward path over the course of the season. This is not to say that he did (or would ever) become “Ovechkinesque” in his propensity to shoot the puck – that is not his game – but from seven shots in his first ten games to 23 in his last dozen is indicative of a willingness to take advantage of opportunities and not think past first, next, and last.

If there was a surprising aspect to Backstrom’s game, it was his responsibility on defense. In three of his first four ten-game splits, he was in the aggregate a minus player. In three of the last four (accounting for 12 games in his last split), he was a plus player, including being a +15 in his last 22 games.

If there could stand to be an improvement in his game, it is in the circle. He was 46.3 percent for the season (if you’re looking for a rookie comparison, Sidney Crosby was 45.5 percent in his rookie year). But even here there is an odd consistency. In each of the last four splits for the season, he achieved at least 50 percent in faceoff wins at least five times (only once in his first four splits).

Improvement and consistency. These are precisely the things one might ask for in a student. Nicklas Backstrom came a long way this year, and while he has a long way to go, he learned his lessons well.

Grade: A-