Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Young Guns, One and All -- Part 2: Nicklas Backstrom in the Playoff Era

Last time, we took a look at how Alex Ovechkin performed relative to the team over the course of the four years in which the Caps qualified for the post season. We compared His performance in 10-game segments against the standings points performance of the Caps over that period. Now it’s time to take a look at another of the Young Guns, Nicklas Backstrom.

Looking at Nicklas Backstrom’s progression over the past four years is – even more than Alex Ovechkin -- like watching how the Caps have evolved. Looking at the path and trend of Backstrom’s performance over the past four years, his trend line closely matches that of the Caps’ standings…to a point:

(click for larger picture)

Backstrom, like the Caps, had something of a slow start in this four-year period. Backstrom might be excused for being a rookie playing his first games in North America, while the Caps were still something of a developing team. Nevertheless, just as the Caps were struggling to get to a point where they averaged 10 or more points per ten games played, Backstrom was inching his way toward becoming a point a game player.

But while Backstrom’s trend mirrors even more closely the Caps’ fortunes over most of the series than does that of Alex Ovechkin, Backstrom has an important similarity to Ovechkin as well. Early in the 2010-2011 season, the trendlines of Backstrom’s performance and that of the team start to diverge. For Backstrom, the divergence begins a bit earlier than does that for Ovechkin, but that might be a product of Backstrom’s tendency to start seasons slowly. In his four seasons in the NHL, Backstrom has played in 44 October games and has compiled a 7-29-36 scoring line in those games – a 67-point scoring pace over an 82-game season.And only once has he recorded an October with more than a point-a-game pace (2009-2010, 3-14-17 in 13 games).

But there is that divergence in 2010-2011 that starts early and persists over the course of the season. Even as the Caps righted themselves after enduring an eight-game losing streak in December (30-11-7 after than streak), Backstrom’s production slid – 7-24-31 in 43 games after the losing streak.

Backstrom was a plus-18 in those 43 games after the December losing streak. And given the way the trends diverge, this might not be such a surprising result. Plus-minus, being an aggregate statistic applied to individuals (the outcome being a product of all players on the ice), might be expected to reflect the team’s productivity as much or more than that of the individual to which it is identified. The Caps were a very successful team in the last 48 games of the season – that 30-11-7 record. Backstrom’s success lagged behind that of the team, but again we might have a case of the team’s overall strength and depth being more than enough to overcome the drop in production of an individual, even a Nicklas Backstrom.

It is also worth noting that Backstrom’s trend line looks very much like that of Alex Ovechkin in the latter stages of the series. Not surprising, given how much these two play alongside one another. But this reinforces an idea that defense wins games more consistently than does offense (the Caps allowed only 96 goals in the last 48 games of the regular season, not including Gimmick scores). Consider that Backstrom and Ovechkin between them scored a total of 27 goals in the last 48 games of the season. In 2009-2010, when the Caps were lighting up the scoreboard like a pinball machine, Backstrom and Ovechkin scored 51 goals between them in the last 48 games of the season, and the team recorded only six more standings points (a 33-8-7 record).

In the end, Backstrom’s record and that of Alex Ovechkin, especially in the latter games of the series, look very much alike. And again, the divergence of the trend lines of scoring and standings points indicate more depth and, as we are starting to see, the importance of other factors in team success – perhaps the emphasis on defense. Nevertheless, here we are once more with a player whose production closely approximates that of the club for most of the four years in this series, but whose production underperforms that of the team late in the series. It speaks once more to the importance of a long bench – of a 20-player team – as a means to success.