Has Nicklas Backstrom finally become the Washington Capitals’ best player?
The Washington Capitals didn’t fulfill their ultimate goal of winning a Stanley Cup during the 2016-17 NHL season. However, lots of players did things worth celebrating. Perhaps no Capitals skater had a better season than star center Nicklas Backstrom.
Often thought of as the Robin to Alex Ovechkin’s Batman, the Swedish forward had one of the best seasons of his career. For the first time, it feels like Backstrom is no longer the most underrated player in the league. It took a while, but now everyone knows how great number 19 is.
All stats, unless otherwise mentioned, are from Corsica. Possession and goals for stats are at even strength and adjusted for venue, score and zone.
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Regular season: 82 games played, 23 goals, 63 assists, 86 points, +/- rating of +17, 38 PIMs, 45 hits, 33 blocked shots, 18:16 average time on ice, 52.92 percent CorsiFor percentage, 52.21 percent expected GoalsFor percentage, 60.16 percent GoalsFor percentage.
Relative possession numbers: -0.51 relative CorsiFor percentage, -1.51 percent relative GoalsFor percentage, -0.64 percent expected GoalsFor percentage
Postseason: 13 games, six goals, seven assists, 13 points, +/- rating of 0, two penalty minutes, 20:44 average time on ice.
One song summaries his season (and in fact career). It finally happened.
By points, Backstrom had his third most productive season, averaging over a point per game. Using era-adjusted points, he had his second most productive season, trailing only his 2009-10 campaign. It’s worth noting Backstrom did this while averaging the lowest time on ice per game of his career. He finished fourth in the NHL in points, falling just behind Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby and Patrick Kane. His 1.05 points per game ranked seventh in the league.
“I’ve learned a lot from Nicky from on the ice and off the ice. How to act, how to get ready, everything. He’s been a huge impact for me.” – Andre Burakovsky
Backstrom led the team in the regular season in points and did so in the postseason as well despite often facing his opponent’s toughest competition. Keeping him fresh did wonders for him, as he rarely showed signs of fatigue. With 2.41 even strength points per 60 minutes, Backstrom ranked seventh among all forwards. However, this was slightly inflated by secondary assists, as he finished just outside of the top 30 in primary points per 60 minutes.
On the power play, Backstrom remains an elite player, leading the NHL with 35 power play points. He won 51.4 percent of his faceoffs as well. Backstrom emerged as a fringe elite center and as a team leader as well. The usually reserved and quiet center got vocal at times this year, especially during the postseason.
Off the ice, Backstrom serves as a mentor for the young players.
“I’ve learned a lot from Nicky from on the ice and off the ice,” said Burakovsky, via Japers Rink. “How to act, how to get ready, everything. He’s been a huge impact for me.”
Backstrom didn’t post the best possession stats. This is the first time in his career his relative CorsiFor percentage has been in the red. He also had a positive CorsiAgainst per 60 minutes at even strength, which is rare. There are a variety of factors at work here. Maybe one of them is Alex Ovechkin because both had a higher CorsiFor percentage without the other. Backstrom is used as a shutdown center, so this obviously influences it as well.
But even in his worst year, he wasn’t that much of a drag on the Caps’ possession numbers. That’s a good sign, however, Backstrom’s possession numbers are something to keep an eye on. This goes for just about everyone not named Braden Holtby, but he was a no show in Game 7 against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Maybe it’s my high expectations for Backstrom, but his lack of production in a must win game was extremely surprising.
If the Washington Capitals trade Ovechkin, Backstrom is without question the leader on the team. It was a pleasant surprise to see the usually introverted and quiet center become more vocal. Backstrom plays at his best when he takes charge. Maybe he needs to be away from Ovechkin for this to happen.
Holtby is without question the most valuable Capital, especially if/when Philipp Grubauer goes to the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft. But even with Evgeny Kuznetsov’s emergence as a top center, Backstrom might be the next most valuable player to the Washington Capitals. In a center driven league, number 19 is an elite one. Those are extremely difficult to find.
Would you put Backstrom in the elite center category? How big is that tier? Does it consist of just Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Connor McDavid? Are you concerned at all about his drop in playing time, or do you think it’s probably just due to Kuznetsov? Feel free to discuss these questions in the comments.