Sunday, December 27, 2020

Washington Capitals 2020-2021 Previews -- Forwards: Nicklas Backstrom

Nicklas Backstrom

“There are no Hallmark cards that define the next chapter”
-- Brad Pitt

If all goes well in the 2020-2021 season, even with the abbreviated 56-game schedule, Nicklas Backstrom will leapfrog Peter Bondra and Calle Johansson in games played for the Washington Capitals and become the second player in Caps history to reach the 1,000 games played milestone (Alex Ovechkin has 1,152 games played).

Over his 956-game regular season career, Backstrom long ago established himself as the most consistent, most reliable, most productive center in Caps history.  His long record of excellence was rewarded with a five-year/$46 million contract last January that will take him through the 2024-2025 season when he will be 37 years old.

A player with the consistency Backstrom has displayed over the years would not be expected to have his production fall off a cliff, and Backstrom has not suffered that problem.  However, with such a player, one might look for hints that he is entering another, less productive phase of his career.  The trick is not to read too much into slippages while at the same time not ignoring things that bear watching.  For example…

  • Backstrom finished the 2019-2020 season with a minus-1 rating. It was his first minus rating since the 2013-2014 season. Not an awful rating, but outside of the pattern he had over the previous five seasons over which he was a combined plus-46.
  • He averaged 0.89 points per game, the second season in three in which his points per game was under 0.90 per game.
  • He had 18 power play points.  That came in 61 games of an abbreviated season, but it tied for his lowest career total for a season, the other instance being when he had 18 power play points in 48 games in 2012-2013, another abbreviated season.
  • The 2019-2020 season was the first one of Backstrom’s career in which he did not record a game-winning goal, and his two power play goals were a career low.

By themselves, none of these items point to a collapse in production.  But they all do tip in the same direction, which makes his performance going forward one that bears watching.

Odd Backstrom Fact… Since he came into the league in 2007-2008, only two players have recorded points in more wins than Backstrom.  He has at least one point in 409 of the Caps’ 596 wins over that period (tied with Sidney Crosby).  Only Alex Ovechkin (points in 448 wins) and Patrick Kane (points in 426 wins) have been on the score sheet more often in victories.

Odd Backstrom Fact II… Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov are at different points in their career, but going into the 2020-2021 season they are tied in career goals per game (0.25) and career shots on goal per game (2.13).

Fearless’ Take…

If you take out his third ten-game segment from last season, one in which he missed seven games and recorded three points in the three games in which he did play, Backstrom had a reasonably consistent season scoring-wise.  In the other six segments (the season limited to 69 games), he did not record fewer than seven points or more than 11.  His goal scoring improved over the last two-thirds of his game log, from four goals in his first 23 games to eight in his last 38 games.  And, in that “consistency” vein, Backstrom is one of five players since he came into the league in 2007-2008 to post 0.80 points per game in each of the 13 seasons since then.  The others are a “Who’s Who” of NHL’ers – Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane, Evgeni Malkin, and Alex Ovechkin.  No other NHL player has done it more than 11 times over that span.

Cheerless’ Take…

Boy, that contract.  If you look at centers at with cap hits between $8.5 and $10.0 million (Backstrom’s is $9.2 million),  it: a) does not look like a value contract, and b) is not going to age well.  Looking at players age 33 years and older (Backstrom will turn 33 in November) who averaged at least 0.80 points per game, only five players did it in five or more seasons since the 2004-2005 lockout – Teemu Selanne (seven times), Ray Whitney (six), Martin St. Louis (six), Jaromir Jagr, and Daniel Alfredsson.  Backstrom certainly is competitive with this group of players, but maintaining his recent level of production consistently over the five-year life of his current contract might not be the way to bet.

Potential Milestones to Reach in 2020-2021:

  • 250 career goals (he has 243)
  • 250 multi-point games (245)
  • 500 career penalty minutes (462)
  • 700 career assists (684)
  • 20,000 minutes played (18,808)
  • Games played as a Capital (he needs 28 to pass Calle Johansson (983) for second place)

The Big Question… Is Nicklas Backstrom’s career at a tipping point?

Players who enjoy long careers rarely, if ever, avoid a drop off in production as the years go by.  The question is when.  After ten years?  Twelve? Fifteen?  Nicklas Backstrom is entering his 14th NHL season and is coming off one in which he missed eight regular season games to an upper-body injury (he missed a total of ten regular season games over the previous seven seasons) and three playoff games to a concussion.  Hockey is a notoriously close-mouthed sport when it comes to revealing details of injuries, even when they linger.  But one could not help at times to think something was “off” in Backstrom’s performance that might have been health related.  Even if true, though, Backstrom had a good, but not quite “Backstromian” season.  And the difference might have been an important factor in the Capitals’ late season collapse and quick exit from the playoffs.  In a short season, where a good start can be helpful, good health will be something to watch with Backstrom.

In the end…

Evaluating Nicklas Backstrom requires context.  Perhaps he has slipped on the margins over the last couple of seasons, but on the other hand, these things are relative.  Backstrom must be considered a member of a short list of elite centers over the last decade.  Even with the small cracks in his body of work over the last couple of seasons, he remains an upper-echelon center who would require little improvement to return to the point-per-game pace and excellent two-way play that has characterized his career overall.  And here might be the fault line on which Backstrom’s 2020-2021 season will rest.  Was his slippage in 2020-2021 a product of nagging injury, and if so, can he have a healthy season that would allow him to return to the level of play Caps fans have enjoyed for more than a decade?

Projection: 56 games, 14-40-54, plus-5