FanPost

Sweet Swede

In the summer of 2006, just after the Washington Capitals selected Nicklas Backstrom with the 4th overall pick in the NHL Draft, I remember reading an ESPN The Magazine story that was written as a ‘fly on the wall’ piece from inside the Columbus Blue Jackets’ Draft War Room.  Going through their prospect list, the Jackets’ Player Personnel Director had this to say about Backstrom:

 “I was watching tape of him playing with Henrik Zetterberg at the worlds, and sometimes I couldn't tell which was which.”

I remember how much that line stuck with me and how I dreamt that the Caps would someday have a Zetterberg-like player to compliment Alex Ovechkin and make us an offensive threat. Now, two and a half seasons into Backstrom’s career, I think it’s time to see if that initial comparison had panned out.

First, let’s look at Backstrom’s numbers from his first 3 seasons. Since his 3rd season is ongoing, I’ve included a ‘production per-82 games’ line for comparisons sake:

Backstrom

GP

G

A

PTS

+/-

82

14

55

69

13

82

22

66

88

16

55

23

40

63

26

82

23

61

84

21

 

And now for Henrik Zetterberg:

Zetterberg

GP

G

A

PTS

+/-

79

22

22

44

6

61

15

28

43

15

77

39

46

85

29

82

29

36

65

19

 

Like Zetterberg, Backstrom’s numbers have improved each season and their solid +/- numbers speak to their defensive ability. Unlike Zetterberg, Backstrom was able to put up better offensive numbers as a 20 year old, with Zetterberg being 22 during his rookie season. He has also been more durable in his first three season, as the discrepancy in games played shows. In Zetterberg’s corner is the fact that he was selected in the 7th round and worked his way into the payer he is today. 

What about other great Swedish players? It took longer for fellow Swedes Daniel Anfredsson, Henrik and Daniel Sedin and Markus Naslund to gain star form, so comparing their first 3 seasons would result in a blow-out in Backstrom's favor. One could also draw comparisons between Backstrom and Kent Nilsson, who put up huge numbers in the offensive ‘80s. For now, we’ll stick to talent Backstrom has actually played against.

One of these comparable players, numbers-wise, is the #1 overall pick in the 1989 NHL Draft, Mats Sundin.

Sundin

GP

G

A

PTS

+/-

80

23

36

59

-24

80

33

43

76

-19

80

47

67

114

21

82

35

50

85

-8

 

Sundin was 19 during his rookie season and played on some defensively terrible Nordiques teams early in his career, which explains the massive +/- hole he dug for himself. But in his 3rd year, he broke out for big numbers. Like Backstrom, Sundin also played with elite talent (Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg) and also played center. But if you compare adjusted statistics, Sundin’s numbers drop based on the era in which he played. Meanwhile, Backstrom’s adjusted numbers actually increase a bit, pulling him away from his Swedish peer.

 

The best comparison is with a fellow centerman selected in the first round in his draft year, Peter Forsberg. Right off the bat, the two appear very similar: Forsberg was selected with the 6th overall pick, and was 21 during his rookie season (which occurred during the Players’ strike season, explaining the 47 games played).

Forsberg

GP

G

A

PTS

+/-

47

15

35

50

17

82

30

86

116

25

65

28

58

86

31

82

31

76

107

31

 

Clearly, Forsberg entered the league as an elite offensive talent, put up stellar numbers, and would eventually win an MVP and scoring title to go along with his 2 Stanley Cups. But his durability began to slip after his second season and he would only play more than 70 games 4 more times in his career. However, throughout his abbreviated career, many considered him to be the best all-around player in the league.

So, after three seasons, that initial comparison to Henrik Zetterberg seems fully warranted, if not a bit of an underassessment of Backstrom’s talent. Statistically, Backstrom falls behind only Peter Forsberg among Swedish players in their first three seasons. While he likely won’t surpass ‘Peter the Great’ as the best Swedish player (not named Lidstrom) in NHL history, he most certainly can reach ‘Nicklas the Really, Really, Really Good’ status.


If this FanPost is written by someone other than one of the blog's editors, the opinions expressed in it do not necessarily reflect those of this blog or SB Nation.

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