Measuring Milestones for the 2010-11 Washington Capitals

In the spirit of off-season deliberation, the blog types of Rock the Red recently kicked around a hypothesis regarding two of the Washington Capitals’ pending career milestones. Among other achievements set for the 2010-11 season, Super Swede NicklasBackstrom is poised to eclipse the 200 mark for assists, with 189 career helpers currently on the books. Likewise, grizzled vet Mike Knuble looks to lace up his skates for the 900th time, presently being credited for hitting the ice 889 times in his career. Although separate achievements, both Lars and Double-Duce sit 11 tallies away from their respective marks.

Since Knuble’s dauntless man-of-steel-esque competition is nearly as well known as Backstrom’s penchant for setting the table, it’s hard to say outwright which milestone will be conquered first with absolute certainty. Allow our litigators to present the case of each, and tell us in our comments section which Cap we will see celebrating first.

Backstrom or Knuble? Knuble or Backstrom?

The Case for Knuble:

When the Caps brought in elder statesman Mike Knuble, I was excited about two aspects of his game: his ability to crash the crease, and his rugged durability. In his last 6 seasons in the NHL #22 played in every contest of the 82-game season all but twice, participating in 93.7% of the games played. Both times Knuble had to miss games were for injuries to left-hand digits- issues he tried to down play in order to keep playing. And while taking a puck to the face during practice, game-day stiffness, or other freak accidents are always a possibility, much like death and taxes – it’s a certainty Mikey will be on the ice.

Barring an off-season injury, the only other reason a player to miss time would result from being surpassed in talent by another member of the teams’ roster. With a hat tip to Brooks Laich‘s crease crashing talents, there are very few else who can play the same style of game as the Right Winger in question.

The Case for Backstrom:

As we mentioned above, Backstrom epitomizes a true Center and excels at reading defenders en route to feeding the perfect pass to sharp shooter Alex Ovechkin or garbage man Knuble. Additionally, Nicky’s options are expanded during his career 3:50 TOI/G with an extra man when he takes the ice alongside 40-goal scorer Alexander Semin and power play goal assassin Laich.

As #19 enters his 4th season with the Capitals, his assist tallies have jumped each season from 55 in 2007-09 to 66 in 2008-09, and to an NHL third place 68 last season. Career wise, Backstrom averages 63 helpers a season, good for a maddening .77/game. At that rate, Lars is set to accomplish his milestone in a little over 14 games. If we are to extrapolate Backstrom’s output for this season, he is on pace for 72 assists this season -.88/game in a full 82-game season, projecting him to join the 200 club in less than 13 games.

Furthermore, Backstrom seems to start each season focusing more on setting up his teammates more than taking the shot himself. He started the year with 5 assists in the first 7 games of the 2007-08 season and racked up 14 in the first 17 contests of 2008-09. Most impressively, however, is Backstrom’s 8 helpers in the first 3 games of the 2009-10 season (3, 2 and 3, respectively) before skyrocketing to 14 in the first month.

Only one issue might hamper Lars’ case: his end of year blossoming as a goal scoring threat. Backstrom more than doubled his goal output of his inaugural season in the league in 2009-10 (14-33), and scored 9 goals in a 13 game stretch that includes the playoffs. If Lars continues with this new M.O., we can expect his assist accumulation to take longer than expected.

So this is where we look to you to let us know which side you stand on of the Caps’ version of the classic control/variable experiment: the tireless play of Mike Knuble? Or the offensive prowess of Nicklas Backstrom?