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Offseason Evaluation: Nicklas Backstrom

As the 2011-12 season has come to a close, the time has come to evaluate what it meant for the Capitals, both as a team and as individuals.  As such, as the summer progresses, I will be writing a report card, or individual evaluation, for each player who played in 9 (~10%) of the team’s games, or 4 playoff games. Next up is center Nicklas Backstrom, who finished his fifth NHL season, all with the Capitals, on this past year’s campaign.

Season Summary: Marred by a concussion that caused him to miss 40 games between early January and late March, Backstrom’s 2011-12 campaign was very good nonetheless.  Playing in 42 games, Backstrom was the only Capital to average more than a point per game and led the team in scoring for more than a month after he was hurt on January 3rd – it took Alex Ovechkin that long to catch him.  All told, the Swedish pivot had 14 goals, 30 assists, 24 penalty minutes, and a minus-four rating.  The bad rating was fueled by the fact that he was both unlucky (PDO of 986, fourth worst among Capitals forwards), and the fact that Capitals goaltenders only had a .900 save percentage when he was on the ice (second worst among forwards).  Backstrom was also one of only five Washington forwards to have a positive corsi rating for puck possession at 3.76, though he did it against very soft minutesGrade: A-

Role Play: Coming off a very poor (by his standards) 2010-11, Backstrom was the Capitals’ best player when he was healthy, producing steadily offensively and playing reliable defense as Washington’s only above-average center.  His injury was obviously a huge loss for the Capitals, and with him out of the lineup, the team struggled mightily, but it’t not in any way his fault that Rene Bourque decided to behead him.  In short, when he was able to lace them up, Nicky was a monster, which is what I expected – he’s too good a player to be as average as he was two seasons ago. Grade: A

Playoffs: Backstrom played in 13 playoff games and was second on the team in playoff scoring with two goals, six assists, and a plus-two rating.  One of his goals was a game winner, in game two against the Bruins, and it was actually his suspension for cross checking Rich Peverley that led to Mike Knuble being inserted to the lineup – which helped DC win their series against Boston.  Backstrom was also the only (!!!) Capitals forward to have a positive puck possession rating in the playoffs at 0.27 – and this time, he did it against middle of the pack competition instead of easy competition.  Overall, I was impressed by a player who only played in four regular season games after a concussion before starting postseason play. Grade: A-

Future Potential: Now 24, Backstrom has become the best player on the Capitals, replacing Alex Ovechkin.  There is nothing that Nick cannot do – he can score, pass, run a power play, play defense, win faceoffs at a respectable clip, and possess the puck.  He is reliable, smart with the puck, and if the Caps are to win a Cup in the next eight years, he will be right at the center of it as the best and most complete player on the roster (pending a trade for one of the top 10 players in the NHL).  For his skill set and reliability, Backstrom’s contract (eight more years at $6.7 million per) is a good value for all that he brings, too.  The only variable is the possible recurrence of concussion symptoms, which – as we all know from watching Sidney Crosby – are volatile and unpredictable. Grade: A

The next and final report card will feature winger and captain Ovechkin.

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