Backstrom bided his time for another career year
A hockey player’s prime is supposed to be his early-to-mid-20s, and center Nicklas Backstrom was no different, with his careerbest 101-point campaign coming when he was 22 — nearly a decade ago. As Backstrom matured, his offensive numbers declined while his all-around game became more refined. He has been as important to the Washington Capitals for his shutdown role as for his production.
Why he might be experiencing a renaissance at 31 is harder to explain. It’s not that he’s old, even by professional hockey standards, but he hasn’t gotten any faster. And while his shot has always been underrated, it didn’t drastically improve over the summer. Backstrom figures his mind could be more at ease with the Capitals coming off a Stanley Cup championship.
“I’m feeling good,” he said with a shrug. “I’m enjoying hockey a lot. Given last year’s outcome, I think a lot of the guys are feeling good. There’s no more, really, pressure. There’s pressure in a different way now, so that’s probably something good . . . . You don’t have to think about it every day. That’s obviously a good thing for an athlete. Just kind of let loose and play your own style.”
Whatever it is, Backstrom might be playing the best hockey of his pro career more than a decade into it. With nine goals and 23 assists through 25 games after Friday night’s hat trick, Backstrom is averaging a career-high 1.28 points. He has tallied at least one point in 12 of his past 14 games. Maybe his production tapers off some as the season goes on, but considering Backstrom is almost exclusively tasked with playing against the opponent’s top line every game, his offensive output to start the season has been impressive.
“For me, this has been the strongest he’s played, going on my fifth year here,” Coach Todd Reirden said. “Just the consistency of what he plays, the two-way game, the plays he’s making to set guys up — he’s shooting the puck as well as he has over the years. He’s had a really strong year. For me, it’s the best I’ve seen him play through 20-plus games in the start of a season.
“He’s been a huge catalyst for why we’ve had success.”
In another reminder of how long he has played in the NHL, Backstrom eclipsed 600 assists this season, and with his three-assist performance in a win at the New York Islanders on Monday, he passed Peter Bondra for second on the franchise’s all-time points list behind only Alex Ovechkin. Honored during Friday’s game, Backstrom raised a hand in acknowledgment before winning a draw on the penalty kill.
He is so consistently on the score sheet that his contributions — aside from the point production, he averages the second-most even-strength time on ice among Capitals forwards while playing in all situations — often get taken for granted. And then there’s the way he goes about his business on the ice. While his saucer passes have been known to show up on a few highlight reels, he rarely dazzles because he doesn’t need to. There’s a subtlety to his game that comes from an indifference to the attention he would get if he played with more flair.
“Sometimes he’s just making a simple play, and that simple play is the absolute right play,” forward Andre Burakovsky said.
“He slows the game down,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “Some players can do that. They have that ability. You never see him full-speed sprinting for pucks or anything like that because he’s always calculating stuff and protecting the puck. He’s probably one of the best in the world at that, and he makes it look easy.”
Even with center Evgeny Kuznetsov back in the lineup after a concussion sidelined him for more than two weeks, Reirden has kept Backstrom on the top line beside Ovechkin and right wing Tom Wilson after the chemistry among that trio helped Washington reel off seven straight wins and vault to the top of the Metropolitan Division. The Capitals have scored 30 goals during this winning streak, and Backstrom has been on the ice for 12 of them.
When he recorded 33 goals and 68 assists during the 2009-10 season, Backstrom was clearly talented, but both he and the Capitals weren’t as disciplined defensively as they are now. He has had the most defensive-zone starts and taken the most defensive-zone faceoffs on the team, a show of trust from Reirden. But that kind of deployment hurt his production a year ago, when he had 13 fewer points and six fewer goals through 25 games than he has now.
“Maybe a little bit,” Backstrom said. “But that’s something I always wanted to be — a two-way player — anyway.”
Backstrom knows his pace could deteriorate with one midseason slump. But he is rejuvenated and having fun for now, and for the Capitals, that’s just a bonus on top of what he has always provided them.
“He’s the backbone of our team,” Holtby said. “He’s who we run off, who we look to in times of trouble as a calming influence. He shows up every game to play a complete game — defensively, offensively, [penalty kill], [power play]. He’s one of the best players in the game right now. Obviously he’s underrated — everyone knows that now. But he’s special.”
After posting a hat trick Friday, the Capitals’ Nicklas Backstrom is averaging a career-best 1.28 points.