Capitals’ Nation held its collective breath last night after watching Calgary Flames forward Rene Bourque deliver a flagrant elbow to the head of Capitals’ #1 center Nicklas Backstrom. In an environment where even the mention of the word concussion can keep a player out of a game, a blow to the head on a player with a history of migraines was enough to give us pause. In that instant, the reality many in hockey circles have conveniently avoided became painfully clear: Alexander Ovechkin may be the best athlete and goal scorer on the team, but Nicklas Backstrom is the one player the Capitals cannot afford to lose. Losing him would change the landscape drastically and would end the team’s chances of winning anything meaningful this season. For a team that has been plagued by inconsistency this season and has undergone a complete systems overhaul since the coaching change last month, Backstrom has been the rock the team could depend on every night. If Backstrom’s wasn’t under consideration for the Hart Memorial Trophy as the player most valuable to his team before this incident, he should be now.
Backstrom is no longer just Alex Ovechkin’s set-up man, he is the true centerpiece of the Washington Capitals. The general trend that began a few years ago became readily apparent on November 1. That was the night Bruce Boudreau benched Ovechkin as the Capitals were trying to force overtime against the Anaheim Ducks. Backstrom, on the ice in favor of the goalie, started the play as Ovechkin’s set up-man was put on the ice to take the face-off, and when he buried a rebound past Jonas Hiller with 42 seconds left in the game, he emerged as Nicklas Backstrom the clutch goal-scorer. As a follow-up, Backstrom came through in the clutch in overtime, too. He led the rush up ice with Ovechkin, motioned for Ovie to cross behind for a drop pass, then Backstrom flattened Andrew Cogliano with a counter-hit. Backstrom then banged home a centering pass from Jeff Schultz to put the game away, cementing his status as the team’s true game-changer.
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Last month, right after the coaching change, I laid out the possibility that Nicklas Backstrom could win the Hart Trophy if he could put up near 30 goals and lead the NHL in scoring. Now just 4 points behind the NHL scoring leader, that possibility is looking more and more likely with the re-emergence of Alexander Ovechkin and the Capitals’ powerplay, the two factors that should have the biggest influence on Backstrom’s ability to rack up points. Backstrom has all the talent to do this, and he can do it without Ovechkin on his wing at even strength, too. Backstrom has put up points in 26 of the team’s 38 games this season and had scoring streaks of 5, 6, and 3 games prior to his current 5-game streak. He only went consecutive games without a point once this season, a 4-game stretch in mid-November when the team scored a total of 5 goals. That kind of consistency in the face of the team’s general offensive ineptitude in the first half of the season could give Backstrom the edge in the scoring race later this season. To wit, Backstrom has 15 multi-point games this season, but Tuesday’s game against the Flames marked his first 3-point game of the season. The first half of this season might just have been a warm-up to the real show that’s coming.
Backstrom is well known for setting up Ovechkin for his 65-goal season in 2007-08 and for several more seasons after that, and it is nearly impossible to talk about Backstrom without talking about Ovechkin, too. This is the season Backstrom should stand on his own merits, though. Ovechkin was truly struggling to start this season and likely would have done much worse if Backstrom hadn’t set up his first 10 goals. Ovechkin had long been known for his end-to-end rushes and for his ability to shoot from everywhere, but it took him until December 20 to score a goal not set up by Backstrom. Ovechkin looks like he’s on course to salvage his season and re-emerge as a superstar, but his dreadful first quarter of the season will cost him any chance at MVP. Even now, 13 of Ovechkin’s 17 goals have been set up by Backstrom. With the defense coming together with Mike Green’s return and the dreadful goaltending situation firming up, if Ovechkin’s production takes off on top of that, the team’s production will ramp up, too, Backstrom’s included.
Backstrom doesn’t just score, either, he puts in the work all over the ice and in all situations. The 6’1, 213 pound Swede is the kind of big, tough, creative center championship teams build around. When he was playing injured in the playoffs last season and wasn’t producing offensively, the Caps still won a playoff series due in no small part to Backstrom’s contributions. Unlike some players, when Backstrom is not scoring, he still does all the little things to help a team win, and, as Gavin Rossdale would remind us, it’s the little things that kill. Backstrom leads the team’s forwards in total ice time (728:27), which comes out to an average of 19:10 per game, including 3:22 on the powerplay and 1:06 on the penalty kill. Backstrom’s defensive work shows up in the stats, too, as he has blocked 23 shots (4th among Caps forwards) and has 25 takeaways (2nd). He’s also taken the most faceoffs on the team (622, 26th in the NHL) and has won 51.3% of them. He’s the one player the coach can throw over the boards for any situation in any game against any opponent and know he’ll get results.
Some people say a true measure of a player’s value is if he can make his teammates better. Nobody fits this description better than Nick Backstrom. When Marcus Johansson was struggling this season at center, Coach Dale Hunter put him on Backstrom’s left wing and got immediate results. Alexander Semin usually responds well to playing with Backstrom, too, as many of his 4-point games and slump-ending games come when he’s paired up with Nick. Going down the lineup throughout his career, Nicklas Backstrom has gotten the best out of his linemates, including Viktor Kozlov, Mike Knuble, Troy Brouwer, Eric Fehr, Tomas Fleischmann, and on. The funny thing about Backstrom is that he’s often the guy that makes up for his linemates’ defensive deficiencies and often starts plays that lead to goals, even when he’s not credited with an assist. He’s the best technical passer on the team and, with respect to Semin, the player with the most useful creativity. He’s the team’s most valuable player, the one player the team cannot do without, certainly not right as they are turning the corner on their season.