Nicklas Backstrom: Struggling Swede

PITTSBURGH PA - DECEMBER 31: Nicklas Backstrom #19 of the Washington Capitals looks on during the 2011 NHL Winter Classic Practice on December 31 2010 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

Much has been made this year, and rightfully so, of the struggles of Alex Ovechkin, whose offensive production has been nowhere near what we’ve come to expect from him. On pace for his lowest goal and point totals of his career, there’s legitimate concern about what’s causing the captain’s off-year so far.

Receiving less attention but no less troubling are the parallel struggles of his linemate and pivot of four years, Nicklas Backstrom – in this, as with his positive accomplishments, Backstrom mostly lives in Ovechkin’s shadow. But his slump remains very real, and (as with Ovechkin’s dry spell) has impacted the team’s overall offensive output - and vice versa. If Ovechkin’s not finishing off his chances, Backstrom’s not picking up assists; if the power play’s not clicking, Backstrom’s not earning points in what is usually his most creative time on the ice. But how much of that is impacting Backstrom and how much of it is impacted by him?

Through 41 games this year, Backstrom has put up eleven goals and twenty-six assists – his lowest points total since his rookie season when he had just twenty-nine points through 41 games. Should he continue at this pace for the duration of the season it would give him 74 points, his lowest total since his rookie season, and just 52 assists, which would be a career low. His points-per-60 minutes is a career-low 1.71 while his shooting percentage, just 11%, is the lowest of any 41-game start in his four years (beating his first 41 NHL games by .29%). As for that +/-ON60...yeah, that's been crushed, down to 0.70 from 2.15 last year.

It's certainly not for lack of trying, of course. His 100 shots through 41 games this year is his second most, behind only the 105 he put up in the first half of last season. And his production is inherently tied to that of his teammates. As Backstrom goes, so goes Ovechkin (especially given how often they're on the ice together). And to a lesser extent, so go Mike Green and Alexander Semin. But the opposite is just as true. The team’s not scoring as much and so individual numbers suffer, as we’ve seen across the board. Ovechkin’s fighting a combination of increased defensive pressure and a slump of his own, which puts more pressure on Backstrom to shoot rather than pass – and since he’s not scoring, either, he might be doing what most guys do when in a goal-scoring drought and trying to be too fine with his shots. 

And perhaps the burden of carrying the defensive responsibility for the top line (and beyond) is starting to wear on him and prevent him from being as creative as he’s capable of being. His offensive zone starts are down slightly from last year, a fact that speaks both to his increasing defensive responsibility and the need for a responsible 2/3C to help ease the burden of taking key faceoffs - and which impacts his overall production. 

It just seems, as it does with a few of his teammates, that something about Backstrom is a little...off. Passes aren’t as crisp. Shots are either right to the goalie’s chest, off a post, going wide or being blocked. The intensity that Backstrom is so sneaky-good at incorporating seems to be missing from his game. As is the case with a few of his teammates, logic would say that he’s too talented for this to continue much longer – but 41 games in, it’s definitely cause for concern.

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