Sunday, May 04, 2014

Washington Capitals: 2013-2014 By the Tens -- Forwards: Nicklas Backstrom

“Character is the impulse reined down into steady continuance.”
--  Charles Henry Parkhurst

In 495 regular season NHL games, Nicklas Backstrom has 494 points.  In the 2013-2014 season those numbers were 82 games and 79 points.  If you look at his eight ten-game splits over the course of the season, five times he recorded between nine and twelve points.  Nicklas Backstrom is one of the most consistent players of his generation in the NHL in terms of generating points.

There was, however, something odd in Backstrom’s 2013-2014 season.  Never in five seasons in which he did not suffer a concussion did he finish on the minus side of the ledger (he was minus-4 in 2011-2012, the year he lost 40 games to a concussion).  This past season Backstrom finished a career worst minus-20.  Whatever one thinks of the plus-minus statistic, it can be an indicator of, well, something.  So, let’s explore.

First, there is the ranking.  Of 255 players identified as centers in the NHL rankings, Backstrom’s minus-20 ranked tied for 248th.  In terms of the teams represented in his neighborhood in those rankings, you find Calgary, Buffalo, Ottawa, Edmonton.  Those four teams were among the seven worst teams in the league in scoring defense.  Washington was not quite in that group (10th worst), but it is an indicator that things were not all well on defense.

Second, the defensive problem is noteworthy, but not an entirely complete picture of the problem.  Backstrom, generally thought of as one of the best offensive centers in the league, finished in a tie for 37th among centers in even-strength points (34).  In 2012-2013 he was a top-10 performer (tied for tenth with 30 points).   

Third, his underlying statistics paint an odd picture.  If one looks at his zone starts over the last three seasons, his even strength offensive zone start percentages were 52.6, 50.3, and 56.4 percent this past season.  He was getting something of a break compared to previous seasons in this regard, not having to start plays on defense so often.  What is more, his offensive zone start percentage relative to that when he was not on the ice was +8.9, the highest of his last three seasons.  

With this apparently favorable environment in which to exert offensive pressure, did he (and by extension, his linemates)?  The gross measure of this would have been his Corsi numbers, reflecting shots directed on net.  His Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5 was 49.2, the only time in the past three seasons in which he was on the wrong side of 50 percent (50.7 in 2012-2013, 51.3 in 2012-2013).  And even that was an improvement over his teammates (plus 2.3 percent relative to the team’s Corsi-for on ice). 

If possession leads to shots, then leads to goals, then Backstrom’s shots-for and goals-for percentage at 5-on-5 is entirely consistent with the higher order numbers described.  His shots-for percentage at 5-on-5 was 47.2, and his goals-for percentage at 5-on-5 was 41.8, both the worst of the past three seasons, the goals-for percentage being 240th of 293 forwards playing in at least 75 percent of their team’s games. 

Fearless’ Take… Did you know that Nicklas Backstrom finished the season with more power play points (44) than any player since the 2006-2007 regular season?  And here is the thing about that.  In that 2006-2007 season, when Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby was finishing with 61 power play points, San Jose’s Joe Thornton with 54, and Boston’s Marc Savard with 49, their teams finished the season with 463, 410 and 412 power play opportunities, respectively.  Backstrom’s Caps finished with 291 power plays in 2013-2014.

Cheerless’ Take… Only six of 583 forwards in the NHL had a worse plus-minus on the road than Backstrom (minus-15).  This despite the fact that he was sixth in the league among centers and 11th overall in points recorded on the road.

Odd Backstrom Fact… Here is a weird number – 27.  That was the number of minor penalties Backstrom took this season, tied for ninth most among 255 centers.  Until this season he never ranked higher than 25th in minor penalties taken, and this was a player who ranked 97th among centers in minor penalties taken in his rookie year.

Game to Remember… December 10th versus Tampa Bay. In each of his five seasons in the NHL in which he was not concussed (taking away the 2011-2012 season in which he lost 40 games to a concussion), Nicklas Backstrom has recorded at least one four-point game. In two of those seasons he had at least one five-point game.  Backstrom took care of both for 2013-2014 when the Caps hosted Tampa Bay on December 10th.  The game itself certainly did not seem at first to hold the promise of being memorable.  The Lightning went out to a 3-0 lead barely 11 minutes into the game, chasing starting goalie Braden Holtby.  But the Caps got one back before the end of the first frame.  It happened literally (grammar police be warned) in the blink of an eye.  At 14:14 of the period Backstrom won a faceoff from Nate Thompson back to Alex Ovechkin.  At 14:15 Ovechkin’s one timer off that draw was in the back of the net.

Backstrom got one of his own in the second period on a power play by being patient.  The Caps worked the puck in ever more tightly to goalie Ben Bishop with Backstrom circling patiently in the right wing circle.  The puck eventually made it to Mikhail Grabovski at the post to Bishop’s left.  Grabovski backhanded a pass through the legs of defenseman Matt Carle and onto Backstrom’s stick.  Backstrom snapped the puck over Bishop’s glove to get the Caps within a goal.

After Tampa Bay restored their two-goal lead, Backstrom was back to being playmaker, twice in barely two minutes late in the second period, both on a power play following a major penalty to Richard Panik.  The first started with a faceoff win by Troy Brouwer.  John Carlson pulled the puck back, then sent it to Backstrom on the right wing wall.  Backstrom swept the puck down to Marcus Johansson at the goal line extended, Johansson sent it across the crease to Ovechkin pinching in, and Ovechkin finished the play seven seconds after it started.  The second came when Backstrom set the play up with a pass to Mike Green at the top of the offensive zone.  After Green played back and forth with Ovechkin, Green set Ovechkin up for another one-timer to tie the game.

Tampa Bay took one more lead, which was prelude to the exciting conclusion of regulation time.  With the clock under a minute to play, Backstrom dug the puck out of a clot of bodies in the right wing corner.  Backstrom fed John Carlson at the right point, and Carlson went round the horn with a pass to Ovechkin in the left wing circle.  One more one-timer later, the game was tied on Ovechkin’s fourth goal, 5-5, in a game the Caps would win, 6-5 in the Gimmick.

Game to Forget… March 25th versus Los Angeles.  The Capitals were coming off what for them was a successful road trip – a successful road trip for any Eastern team, in fact.  Three games in California and a 2-0-1 record.  It made the Caps 4-0-1 in five games heading into their March 25th game at home against the Kings.  Things started well for the Caps.  Backstrom might have had the first goal in the third minute of the game on a power play, but Alex Ovechkin’s back door pass hit Robyn Regehr before it reached Backstrom, popped in the air, and dropped behind goalie Jonathan Quick.  Less than five minutes later Backstrom helped give the Caps a two-goal lead on another power play, starting the line play by sliding the puck to Troy Brouwer in the middle of the 1-3-1.  Brouwer sent the puck to Alex Ovechkin on the left side of the line for a one-timer that beat quick to the blocker side. 

That would be as good as it got.  The Kings halved the lead 2:53 into the second period.  Then, just over two minutes later, Backstrom carried the puck down the left side to the Kings’ blue line.  As he was doing so, defenseman Drew Doughty was angling over to interrupt Backstrom’s advance.  As Backstrom reached the blue line Doughty bodied him into the boards, a legal hit that Backstrom took awkwardly.  He tumbled to the ice, then skated off at the 5:03 mark.  It would be Backstrom’s last shift of the game in what would be a 5-4 trick shot loss the Kings that stunted the Caps’ momentum and started them on a five-game losing streak (0-3-2) that would, for all intents and purposes, end the competitive portion of the Caps’ season.

In the end…

On the surface, there is Nicklas Backstrom as the point-a-game player he has been almost since he stepped onto the ice in the NHL, 79 points in 82 games.  Underneath, there he – and his usual line mates Alex Ovechkin and Marcus Johansson – was, getting creamed at 5-on-5.   Backstrom’s goals-for percentage at 5-on-5 (41.8 percent), along with those of those running mates (35.8 for Ovechkin, 41.2 percent for Johansson), was among the worst on the team among forwards playing in at least half of the Capitals’ games this season.  The brutal road numbers suggest that teams were taking advantage of favorable matchups to exploit cracks in that Capitals top line, Backstrom included.  And for a player who had a reputation of being a good player in all three zones, this result was both unexpected and troublesome. 

Hockey is a team game, and a line’s troubles are not necessarily the problems of one player, be it Backstrom, Ovechkin, or Johansson.  The power play production was nice, but it was not as good a year for any of them that their top line numbers might suggest.  For Backstrom, who in eight ten-game segments finished in “plus” territory  just once, it was the sort of consistency that was unwelcome and, ultimately, unproductive.

Grade: B-

Photo: Alex Trautwig/Getty Images North America