Through 23 games, the team’s number one center is the leading scorer, even if his plus/minus isn’t impressive. He is coming off a sub-par season after a 30+goal, 101-point season the year before. As a top draft pick, he has the pedigree and potential to take over games, and indeed, the entire NHL. The team isn’t doing too bad in the grand scheme of things, still in playoff position, but they are on the cusp of a major shakeup.
I am of course talking about the 2005-06 Boston Bruins just before they traded Joe Thornton to the San Jose Sharks. Through 23 games, Jumbo Joe had 9 goals and 33 points but just an even defensive rating. Starting Game 24, as a newly minted Shark with a sniper on his wing that went on to win the Rocket Richard Trophy, Thornton posted 20 goals, 92 points, and a +31 rating in his final 58 games. Even though he didn’t break 30 goals and the Sharks didn’t break 100 points or win their division, Thornton still won the scoring title and the Hart Trophy as most valuable player, despite his Rocket Richard-winning linemate, Jonathan Cheechoo.
Up until Game 24, everything else there applies to Nicklas Backstrom this season. Backstrom sits tied for 7th in the NHL in scoring with 8 goals and 26 points, just 6 points behind the leader. He’s got a -6 rating, but the team is going through a major shakeup with a new defensive-minded coach in Dale Hunter. He’s got a struggling two-time Rocket Richard trophy winner on his wing, and Alex Ovechkin might just wake up under this new system and lead the NHL in goals again, which can only help Backstrom’s already impressive production. In short, the stage is set for Nicklas Backstrom to take the NHL by storm, and if he leads the NHL in scoring, gets his +/- rating up, and the Caps finish the season within sight of the Southeast Division crown, this could be the year he wins the Hart Trophy as league MVP.
It would be no shock to anyone in DC if Nicklas Backstrom started dominating the league this season and won MVP. He has been a slick playmaker for many seasons and has been steadily rounding out his game to be an all-around threat as a shooter, faceoff specialist, and a defensive presence. This season, Backstrom came to camp healthy and in the best shape of his life, having spent the summer working with a world-class speedskater to shore up the one remaining weakness in his game, his first three steps. He has been a menace in the cycle game and in transition so far this season, and has easily been the Caps’ most valuable player so far.
The Capitals’ first MVP winner was Alexander Ovechkin 4 years ago. He was already having a good season when Bruce Boudreau took over as coach, and once a struggling Nicklas Backstrom was put on his line, they both took off. Ovechkin blossomed under the offensive system created by a like-minded hockey player in Boudreau, as Boudreau was an all-offense skater who treated defense as an afterthought during his playing days. Nicklas Backstrom stands to have a similar renaissance under kindred spirit Dale Hunter. Hunter was a top-notch playmaker during his early career in Quebec, setting up linemate Michel Goulet for multiple consecutive 50-goal seasons. Like Backstrom, Hunter was adept at creating his own space and creating space for linemates, and he was also very conscious of his defensive responsibilities. If Backstrom’s first game under Hunter was any indication, he should start dominating once he and his teammates really take to the new system. If the compelling Ovechkin narrative from 2008 can be repeated with Backstrom as the star, there’s no reason to think he can’t scoop up the Hart.
In what may become the primary argument against Backstrom for MVP, two-time MVP Alex Oveckin is still there. If Ovechkin does win the Rocket Richard Trophy this season as MVP, he will certainly get his share of votes, but his conspicuous absence in the first quarter of the season will come back to haunt him. There is precedent for teammates winning Hart Trophies, too. Jean Beliveau (1956), Bernie Geoffrion (1961), Jacques Plante (1962), and Jean Beliveau (1964) all won with Montreal over a 9-year period. Phil Esposito (1969, 1974) and Bobby Orr (1970-72) won 5 MVPs over a 6-year stretch. More recently, Joe Sakic (2001) and Peter Forsberg (2003) won MVPs in a 3-year stretch.
Forsberg is also a the most similar player to Nicklas Backstrom in terms of playing style, as both are puck-possession playmakers who are good in traffic and masters of the counter-hit. Forsberg’s situation in 2003 is similar to Backstrom’s, too. Forsberg already had a 100-point season on his resume, and had 89 point in 73 games in 2000-01 before missing the 2001-02 regular season altogether. He came back in ’03 with sniper Milan Hejduk on his wing (whose 50 goals that season earned him the Rocket Richard trophy) and posted 29 goals and 106 points, two better than #2 scorer Markus Naslund. He also led the NHL in +/- at +52 and led the Colorado Avalanche to the division crown. Backstrom is certainly capable of this kind of production.
Forsberg started a trend, as the last 8 MVPs have been forwards, 4 of whom have been centers who led the league in points and had good +/-. Three of those centers also led the NHL in assists (Thornton, Forsberg, and Henrik Sedin in 2010) and the other, Sidney Crosby in 2007, was second. Sedin, Forsberg, and Thornton all hit 29 goals, only Crosby topped 30 with 36. It appears the voters are fond of this type of player, and have no problem voting for Swedes, as long as they win their division and have a high +/-. If Ovechkin wakes up and the powerplay re-emerges, Backstrom’s production should take off, his +/- should climb, and the Caps should re-take the division. This could be Backstrom’s year.