From Alzner to Wideman, we're taking a look at and grading (please read the criteria below) the 2011-12 season for every player who laced 'em up for the Caps for a significant number of games during the campaign, with an eye towards 2012-13. Next up, Nicklas Backstrom.
#19 / Center / Washington Capitals
Nov 23, 1987
$6,700,000 cap hit through 2012-13; UFA summer 2020
'07-'08 Rink Wrap: 8.61 rating
Key Stat: Backstrom was the only Caps player to average more than a point per game on the season.
Interesting Stat: Nick Backstrom was the Caps' leading point scorer on the season until the 13th game he was sidelined following his concussion; he led the team in total assists for another 15 games after that.
The Good: After a disappointing 2010-11 by the lofty standards he'd set for himself, Backstrom came out of the gates on fire in 2011-12 and re-established himself as one of the premiere offensive players in the league. Backstrom was neck-and-neck with Evgeni Malkin and Claude Giroux in the league scoring race when New Year's came around. In fact, Nick had more multi-point games than he had scoreless games through January 3rd. Backstrom was able to do this despite a languishing offensive unit around him, which led to a coaching change, which resulted in an even more moribund offense than that which necessitated the coaching change.
Backstrom was also reliable in all three zones. Dale Hunter picked his spots with his Russian scorers in the playoffs, but Backstrom's two-way game allowed him to take the ice in more situations. Backstrom led all forwards in five-on-five time on ice per game during the playoffs (after being second to only Alex Ovechkin in the regular season), and he was the only Caps player to have a positive Corsi-on during the playoffs. Backstrom also only went two games in a row without a point once in the playoffs (Game 7 against Boston, Game 1 against New York). In two tight, low-scoring series, it's crucial to see star players show up with some reliability.
The Bad: Following Backstrom's three-point night against the Calgary Flames on January 3rd, he was held pointless until the final game of the season when he had a goal and an assist against the New York Rangers. Some of that pointless streak can be chalked up to good defense, but the vast majority of it can be chalked up to a dirty elbow from our friend, Rene The Rat (fun fact, during Backstrom's 40-game absence he was outscored by The Rat by eight whole points). Obviously there's nothing Nick could do about another player's disrespectful and filthy behavior; the only thing we'd really want to change about Backstrom's season would be to get his chin out of the way of that elbow.
But if we're going to nitpick, Backstrom's even-strength possession numbers weren't exactly eye-opening. Only three forwards had better Corsi-on than he did on the season, but Backstrom's Corsi was only moderately positive. Even given the possession troubles that the team dealt with during the beginning portion of Hunter's tenure, you'd like to see such a talented (and important) player spend more time in the offensive zone.
Finally, while you can question the call and the ultimate punishment, Backstrom simply cannot take himself out of the lineup with retaliation penalties. Backstrom lost his cool at the end of game 3 against Boston and ended up spending Game 4 wearing a suit. His teammates stepped up and kept the series from going 1-3 in Boston's favor, but there's no excuse for putting the team in that kind of spot. We're sure Backstrom knows this as well as anyone and doesn't need to be told.
The Vote: Rate Backstrom below on a scale of 1-10 (10 being the best) based on his performance relative to his potential and your expectations for the season - if he had the best year you could have imagined him having, give him a 10; if he more or less played as you expected he would, give him a 5 or a 6; if he had the worst year you could have imagined him having, give him a 1.
The Discussion: Backstrom is locked up as a core piece of the team for the rest of the decade, so there aren't any contract concerns. What does he need to do to get on the short list of the league's elite centers (if you don't think he's already there)? What parts of his game does he need to improve or round out? What would make his current contract look like a great deal, or a bad deal, for the Caps? What would Backstrom's role be on a championship team, is that how the Caps used him? Finally, what will it take for him to earn a 10 rating next year?