“Simplicity is the glory of expression.”
-- Walt Whitman
Making the difficult look simple is a gift only the most talented possess. And while it seems like only yesterday that Alex Ovechkin announced the selection of Nicklas Backstrom as the fourth overall pick in the 2006 Entry Draft, he has been making the difficult look simple for 14 seasons. You could say that Backstrom is on the back-nine of his illustrious career (he will turn 34 in November), but he is still a remarkably productive player, ranking 25th in points per game last season among players dressing for at least 25 games and tied for tenth in power play points (22 – oddly enough, tied with Sidney Crosby in as many games (55)). And turning 30 does not seem to have slowed him down too much. Since turning 30 in the 2017-2018 season, Backstrom ranks 17th in assists (182) and points (252) among all players.
Odd Backstrom Fact… Nicklas Backstrom goes into the 2021-2022 season ranked fifth among active players in career points (980) and eighth in points per game among 206 players with at least 500 games played (0.97).
Odd Backstrom Fact II… Nicklas Backstrom has never been awarded a penalty shot.
Nicklas Backstrom is one of the most reliable players of his era. Only twice in 14 season has he averaged fewer than 2.0 assists per 60 minutes, and only once did he average fewer than 2.5 points per 60 minutes (2.4 in 2010-2011). He is one of three active players since 2007-2008 to average more than 0.70 assists per game (0.71; only Crosby and Evgeni Malkin average more among players dressing for at least 500 games).
Backstrom seems to have hit an inflection point (am I using that word right, cuz?) in his career. From 2014-2015 through 2018-2019 he averaged more primary assists per game than secondary assists, but in the last two seasons he averaged more secondary assists (1.3 in each season) than primary assists (0.9 in each season), even as his points per 60 minutes jumped to its high-water mark (3.1 per game last season) since 2016-2017 (3.4).
Potential Milestones to Reach in 2020-2021…
- 1,000 career points (currently 980)
- 500 career penalty minutes (476)
- 600 career even strength points (582)
- 400 career power play points (396)
- 20,000 career minutes played (19,831)
The Big Question… Is Nicklas Backstrom still an elite playmaker?
The last two seasons were cut short, but Nicklas Backstrom still had respectable 42- and 38-assist seasons. Before that, he posted at least 50 assists in six straight seasons. Can he reach that level again? His six 50-assist seasons since 2013-2014 is most in the league, so one would have to think he is capable of hitting that mark again in a full season, and since Connor McDavid is the only player over that time frame to have more 60-assist seasons (five) than Backstrom (three, tied with Crosby), a big assist season is not out of the question.
In the end…
The core of the Capitals roster is aging, but it remains the core, and it has to produce for the team to have any reasonable hope of a deep playoff run. And that means Nicklas Backstrom will have to have a typical, if not better, Backstrom year. In his favor is the simplicity of his game, or at least the appearance of it. It is what makes his ability to think ahead and place pucks on the tape of teammates in a shooting position almost unmatched in the NHL. But one thing to watch as the new season unfolds is his shooting. He set a personal career high of 16.5 percent shooting last season, but that with the second-fewest shots per 60 minutes of his career (5.3). Backstrom had four 20-goal seasons before the two most recent, abbreviated seasons. But he has not had more than 25 goals since he posted a career-high 33 in 2019-2010. He might need to reach that level for the Caps to safely reach the postseason.
Projection: 76 games, 24-52-76, plus-3