Sunday, September 02, 2018

Washington Capitals 2018-2019 Previews -- Forwards: Nicklas Backstrom

Nicklas Backstrom

“No one is an artist unless he carries his picture in his head before painting it, and is sure of his method and composition.”
-- Claude Monet

Just past the mid-way point of the second period of Game 5 of the 2018 Stanley Cup final, the Washington Capitals were skating on a power play in a 1-1- game.  As he has done almost since he first took the ice for the Caps in 2007, Nicklas Backstrom was playing conductor for the symphony from the right wing wall.  Taking a pass from John Carlson and walking the puck down the right side to the far edge of the faceoff circle, Backstrom had his head up looking for an opportunity.  He edged his way in to the faceoff dot and then threaded a saucer pass through the middle of the ice, within a stick length of all four Vegas Golden Knight defenders and onto the tape of the stick of Alex Ovechkin, who one-timed the puck past goalie Mark-Andre Fleury to give the Caps a 2-1 lead in a game they would go on to win, 4-3, to clinch their first Stanley Cup championship. 

It was a pass that maybe five players in the NHL could make with any regularity, but Nicklas Backstrom has been doing it for more than a decade.  And it served notice that reaching age 30 in 2017-2018 was not a signal that his production would be slowing down appreciably.  True, it was not among his most productive seasons.  His 21 goals were topped in three of his previous ten seasons, only once in a season in which he played at least 50 games did he record fewer than the 50 assists he posted, and his 71 points ranked in the middle of his career pack.  That might be attributed to his being assigned to second line duty (if the definition of “first line” is the one on which Ovechkin plays), largely centering T.J. Oshie on his right side and a variety of wingers on his left.

Odd Backstrom Fact… 

Nicklas Backstrom has eight 50-assist seasons, most in Capitals history.  That is twice as many as the players in second place: Adam Oates, Alex Ovechkin, and Michal Pivonka.  He has five seasons with 60 or more assists, also tops in team history.  Of the other four players to have posted 60-assist seasons with the Caps, only Scott Stevens did it twice (Oates, Pivonka, and Dennis Maruk are the others).

Fearless’ Take… Backstrom has been an extraordinarily efficient scorer in his 11-year career.  Over that span he is the only player in the league with at least 200 goals (209) and at least 550 assists (590) while averaging less than 20 minutes per game (19:42).  Only once in that span did he finish a season underwater in his shot attempts-for percentage at 5-on-5 (49.30 percent in 2013-2014; numbers from  He also is one of only five forwards since he came into the league to record 500 hits, 500 blocked shots, 500 takeaways, and post a faceoff winning percentage of at least 50 percent (Joe Pavelski, Anze Kopitar, Patrice Bergeron, and Ryan Kesler are the others), testimony to his all-around ability on the ice.

Cheerless’ Take… The Capitals have not had all that deep a history of playmaking centers, but one odd historical fact is that only two centers in team history recorded at least one 50-plus assist season having reached and passed the age of 31 (Backstrom will be 31 in November).  Dale Hunter did it twice, and Adam Oates did it four times.  The good news there is that Oates was one of the best playmakers in NHL history and could probably get something close to 50 assists, even today.  Backstrom is one of the best playmakers of this era.

Potential Milestones to Reach in 2017-2018:
  • 800 points (he has 799 and will become the 164th player in NHL history and tenth native of Sweden to hit the 800-point mark).
  • 600 assists (he has 590 and would become the 87th or 88th player in NHL history to hit the 600-assist mark, depending on what Patrick Marleau (594 assists), and the ninth native of Sweden to do it).
  • Seven seasons playing in all 82 games, which would put him in the top-ten among active players in total seasons playing in 82 games.
  • A 20-goal season would tie him for fifth place in franchise history in total seasons with 20 or more goals (six).
  • A 50-point season would be his tenth and tie him for second place in franchise history in total seasons with 50 or more points (with Mike Gartner, behind Alex Ovechkin (13)).
  • 500 even strength points (he has 466).

The Big Question… Is Nicklas Backstrom now the second option at center on the power play?

In each of Nicklas Backstrom’s 11 seasons, he has led the Caps’ centers in average ice time on the power play.  In each of those seasons he averaged more than three minutes per game with the man advantage.  However, that margin narrowed considerably last season.  Backstrom averaged 3:31 on the power play, while Evgeny Kuznetsov averaged 3:27.  There is the related matter of production.  In each of his ten seasons before last year, he led all Caps centers in power play points.  That string ended in 2017-2018 when Kuznetsov posted 30 power play points to Backstrom’s 26.

Over his 11 seasons in the NHL, only Alex Ovechkin has more power play points (347) than does Backstrom (331).  Last season, however, Backstrom was only fourth on his own team in power play points, his 26 points trailing Ovechkin (31), Kuznetsov (31), and John Carlson (32), and finishing tied for 25th in the league, and it was the fewest he had in a season playing in 50 or more games since he had 22 power play points in 77 games in 2010-2011.  Backstrom did, however, record seven power play goals last season, his fourth-highest total of man advantage goals in his career.

If there is a cup-half-full/cup-half-empty to this, it is that as to the former, the Caps have the luxury of deploying two elite centers in roughly equivalent shares of man advantage ice time these days in Backstrom and Kuznetsov.  And being the second-option in terms of ice time deployment, or perhaps more accurately the “1-A” option, is hardly a signal that the Caps are in trouble on their power play.

In the end…

Nicklas Backstrom’s game seems equal parts intellect and artistry.  Few players in the NHL “think” the game like Backstrom, who seems to be several moves ahead of his opponents in managing the offense, especially on the power play.  But his ability to make something out of little, like that saucer pass assist to Alex Ovechkin in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final, is as deft and elegant as a master’s brush strokes.  Those are the attributes that a player can carry deep into his career, but for now Caps fans will have to settle for seeing them in what is still Nicklas Backstrom’s prime.

Projection: 80 games, 20-56-76, plus-8

Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images North America