Sunday, May 31, 2015

Washington Capitals: 2014-2015 By the Tens -- Forwards: Nicklas Backstrom

"I am constant as the northern star,
Of whose true-fix'd and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament."
-- William Shakespeare (Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene 3)

Hockey is a sport of speed and violence, a riot of kinetic energy that tests the physical skills and the will of all who play it at its highest level.  For some, for the elite of the sport, it is also a game of vision, of determination and, it an odd sense, serenity.  The player who can manage the pace of the game, to bend it to his intentions, to see what others do not see several moves ahead; that player makes a difference.

Nicklas Backstrom has made a career of being such a player.  And, he has done it in an amazingly consistent way.  That consistency was applied once more in the 2014-2015 season:

His consistency applies to his durability as well.  In eight seasons, including the one just completed, Backstrom appeared in all 82 games five times and in all 48 games of the abbreviated 2012-2013 season.  Of the 45 regular season games he missed in his career, 40 of them were the product of a concussion suffered in the 2011-2012 season.  The only playoff games he missed in 72 games over seven post-seasons was the result of a suspension in the first round of the 2011-2012 playoffs.  Nicked-up Nick doesn’t take a night off. 

This season, though, while a picture of consistency, had some unpleasant colors upon closer inspection.  Looking at his ten-game segments, much of his production was front-loaded, or at least his late-season production fell off.  For example…
  • Goals: 18 goals in his first six ten-game segments, none in his last two.
  • Assists: 46 in his first six segments (0.77 per game), 14 in his last two segments (0.64 per game).
  • Points: 64 in his first six segments (1.07 per game), 14 in his last two segments (0.64 per game).
  • Power play assists: 24 in his first six segments (0.40 per game), six in his last two segments (0.27 per game).
  • Shots on goal: 125 in his first six segments (2.08 per game), 28 in his last two segments (1.27 per game)
Even the underlying numbers had an unexpected trend.  Backstrom’s all-situations Corsi plus-minus had a high of plus-97 in his first ten-game segment.  It dropped in every successive ten-game segment, save one.  His scoring chances plus-minus in all situations was plus-138 over his first three segments (plus-4.60 per game), only plus-117 over his last five segments (plus-2.25 per game).

The odd part of Backstrom’s numbers might have been his even strength production.  While having a reputation as a deft power play quarterback, his 5-on-5 numbers improved substantially over the 2013-2014 season:
  • Goals/60 minutes: 0.51 last season/0.62 this season
  • Assists/60 minutes: 0.93/1.29
  • Points/60 minutes: 1.29/1.91
  • Corsi-for pct.: 49.2/54.0 (Corsi numbers from
Conversely, his power play numbers slumped a bit, despite a slight improvement in possession:
  • Goals/60 minutes: 1.20 last season/0.72 this season
  • Assists/60 minutes: 7.59/7.15
  • Points/60 minutes: 8.79/7.87
  • Corsi-for pct.: 90.44/91.47
It made for something of an odd season for Backstrom in its detail; a bit of a falling off late in the season, better even strength numbers, somewhat off in his power play production.  It made for what was a consistent season in the context of his career, but different in its detail.

Fearless’ Take:  Is Nicklas Backstrom the best active player in the NHL never to have been named to an all-star game?  There are folks out there who seem to think he is deserving…

“If there is one guy that stands out on the list of absentees, it’s Washington Capitals forward Nicklas Backstrom."

“Alexander Ovechkin’s selection [to the all-star game] was deserved and far from a surprise, but you could argue that [Backstrom] was more deserving."

“It’s things like…not taking advantage of an easy empty-net goal, never getting mentioned in the same conversation as Henrik Sedin or Claude Giroux or even getting invited to a single All-Star Game — that make Backstrom the National Hockey League’s most underrated No. 1 centre."

…including his coach:

"It absolutely blows my mind away.  He's been our best player, I think, from start to finish. If you had to say who's been our top guy all, he's been the guy. I'm absolutely astounded that no one ever talks about him as a [Selke Trophy] guy, no one ever talks about him as an All-Star. I can't understand it.” 

Maybe teammate Joel Ward has the right idea… “I don’t know how he hasn’t gone to the All-Star Game.  That’s outrageous. We’ll have to get a petition going.” 

Cheerless’ Take: It is really hard to pick at Backstrom’s game.  There was that late-season fall off, but was that a product of injury?  As it was he led the league in assists, the fourth time in six full seasons (either not interrupted by major injury or league issues) he topped 60 assists.  There was the shooting, though.  The shots per game (1.87) tied for the second lowest of his career, and he had only those 28 shots in his last two ten-game segments.  From 2013-2014 to this season, the drop in shots on goal was the difference of five goals in his final total, based on his 2014-2015 shooting percentage.  Perhaps his being more selective made for better shooting efficiency, but that drop in shots might have had opponents leaning just a little bit heavier to Alex Ovechkin’s side of the ice, too.

Odd Backstrom Fact:  You would expect that against stiffer competition, performance numbers would be harder to come by.  With respect to Backstrom, for the 2014-2015 season consistency trumps competition:
  • Non-Playoff Teams: 42 games, 9-34-43, 20 PIMS, 75 shots on goal, 0-16-16 in power play scoring
  • Playoff-Eligible Teams: 40 games: 9-26-35, 78 PIMs, 78 shots on goal, 3-14-17 in power play scoring
That drop off in assists overall might speak more to his teammates’ performance at even strength than Backstrom’s.

Game to Remember: February 17th versus Pittsburgh.  It was not Nicklas Backstrom’s biggest scoring night of the season.  In fact, he had only one point.  It was a big one, though.  Facing the Penguins in Pittsburgh with the game winding down in a tied game, the Penguins went stupid and took two penalties within 11 seconds of one another, giving the Caps a 5-on-3 power play.  What happened next was typical Backstrom.  Alex Ovechkin took a feed from Mike Green and fired a shot from the high slot that was blocked by goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.  Troy Brouwer’s attempt at a put-back was turned aside into the right wing corner.  Ovechkin tracked it down and slid it ahead to Backstrom at the goal line.  His vision being what it is, he eschewed the easy, predictable return pass to Ovechkin up the wall when he spied Joel Ward on the weakside goal line extended.  His snap pass through the top of the crease found its way to the tape of Ward’s stick, and Ward buried the shot before Fleury could scramble across.  It proved to be the game-winning goal in a 3-1 Caps win, and the assist tied Backstrom with countryman Bengt Gustafsson for sixth place (and first among players of Swedish descent) on the Caps’ all-time points list (555).  Backstrom surpassed Gustafsson with a pair of points in his next game and finished the season fifth on the all-time Capitals points list with 572.

Game to Forget: March 11th versus New York Rangers. Backstrom came into the March 11th game against the New York Rangers on something of a run, going 0-5-5, plus-4 in his previous four games, part of a longer run in which he was 2-13-15, plus-4, over a span of 14 games.  That ended abruptly against the visiting Rangers.  The Rangers scored in the game’s ninth minute when a Kevin Hayes shot – one that caught Backstrom a stride too far away to defend – was put back by Carl Hagelin after an initial stop by goalie Braden Holtby.  After the Caps tied the game (on a power play, with Backstrom on the bench), the Rangers scored late in the first period when Tim Gleason’s attempted pass up the wall – intended for Backstrom – was interrupted by the Rangers.  At the end of the play it was J.T. Miller giving the Rangers a goal that put them ahead to stay in a 3-1 win.  Backstrom skated only 18:38 (he had only a dozen games with less ice time), did not register a point, had three giveaways, and was a minus-2, one of only nine games all season he was that far on the minus side of the ledger.

Postseason:  3-5-8, minus-3, 1-0-1 in power play scoring

Nicklas Backstrom went 14 playoff games without a power play assist?  If there is a single number that speaks to why the Capitals went to seven games in the first round and did not advance past the second round, that might be the number.  And again, it is not just Backstrom.  The lack of a power play assist speaks to the fact that there was no one finishing whatever chances the Caps had.  Alex Ovechkin had one power play goal in 14 games.  John Carlson had one.  Backstrom had one.  That’s it.  The Caps lacked opportunities on the power play (28 in 14 games), but they were well under their performance level of the regular season, and nowhere did that manifest itself more – individually and as a team – than in Backstrom’s numbers.

In the end…

For eight seasons, Nicklas Backstrom had been as constant as the Northern Star.  It might be truer of him than of any player in the NHL over that period of time.  And, his presence made a difference in the 2014-2015 season.  In 49 games in which he registered a point this season, the Caps were 29-12-8, a record that would be 49-20-13 (111 points) on an 82-game basis.  When he did not record a point, the Caps were 16-14-3, a 40-35-7 record per 82 games (87 points). 

Backstrom has become one of the most accomplished two-way centers in the game.  His contributions have been an essential part of the Capitals’ success over the past eight seasons.  It might be said of him that he, perhaps even more than Alex Ovechkin, is the Caps’ most valuable player.  With that comes the responsibility for performing at his best in the biggest games, however, and in that respect – particularly in the second round of the post season against the Rangers – his performance was lacking.  Whether that was a product of the hip condition that required surgery or not, it left him another unfulfilled line on his resume, Stanley Cup finalist.  As much as being an all-star, it is this that Backstrom – and his teammates – must address to be considered among the league’s elite.

Grade: B+

Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America