Since his name was called to the stage of General Motors Place in Vancouver by Alex Ovechkin, it was very clear what type of player Nicklas Backstrom would become.
Ovechkin was always the exuberant one, never afraid to jump in front of a microphone and spout off whatever came to mind, generally leading to everyone collectively laughing with his antics. Backstrom, on the other hand, was quiet, reserved, and maybe at times even a little bit awkward.
That contrast in personalities has always worked well in Backstrom's favor. Always one to stay out of the spotlight (something this site has made light of in the past), the Washington Capitals have never been considered his team, Backstrom’s team in the sense that the franchise revolves around him.
As Ovechkin began to stack 50-goal seasons year after year, often highlighted by unthinkable displays of skill and raw, passionate celebrations, Backstrom quietly performed in the background with a workman-like attitude. Three-point night? It's his job to score. 60-assist season? It's what is expected from him.
But if he truly likes to play behind the scenes, it has become impossible for him to hide behind the curtain. With 86 total points on the year, his most in his last seven seasons, Backstrom finished fourth in the league in the respective category. Just a few seasons ago, Backstrom was harmoniously hailed as the NHL's most underrated player (a moniker he is surely pleased with), but that status has begun to quiet. Truth of the matter is, more and more people are beginning to realize just how talented Backstrom truly is.
According to The Hockey News, Nolan Patrick, the center for the Brandon Wheat Kings that is projected to be the No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming NHL draft, claims that he watches highlights of three different players to further craft his game: Anze Kopitar, Jamie Benn and Backstrom. He dissects Kopitar’s game for his elite two-way play. He observes Benn's goal scoring prowess and his ability to drive towards the net. He follows Backstrom for his keen vision and playmaking ability. In reality, Patrick could watch Backstrom to learn about all three qualities.
Much is known and made of Backstrom’s ability, but there’s a sense of unfamiliarity among the league about how talented Backstrom is in his defensive zone.
Since entering the league in 2007, Backstrom has never finished higher than 10th in the Selke Trophy voting, where he finished with one first place vote, three second place votes, one third place vote, four fourth place votes and three fifth place votes in the 2009-10 season. Prior to Barry Trotz’s arrival and excluding the 2009-10 season, Backstrom received four total votes in six seasons, just one for first place.
But Backstrom has begun to get some credit since he’s had Trotz in his corner. Over the last two seasons, Backstrom has finished 11th and 12th in voting, and it’s entirely possible he finishes a bit higher up the list this season. It comes for good reason. Backstrom is generally entrusted with going toe-to-toe against opponent’s top lines, and, more times than not, Backstrom ends up with the upper hand.
The best example of his success comes in his matchup against Sidney Crosby. Including the playoffs, Backstrom played against Crosby for 62:46 minutes this season. Backstrom allowed just 44.9 shot attempts per 60 minutes of play in the matchup when the two were on the ice together, while Backstrom and his linemates generated 63.1 shot attempts per 60 minutes against Crosby.
You don't have to tell all this to the Capitals, particularly Andre Burakovsky. The fellow Swede has battled issues with consistency for the entirety of his young career. But Backstrom has taken him under his wing, both on and off the ice. Off the ice, Backstrom is Burakovky's mentor, a person he feels comfortable with dissecting any part of his game with. On the ice, Backstrom is his calming presence.
After failing to score a goal in the playoffs, Burakovsky was bumped up to Backstrom's line, and he proceeded to score three goals in his first two games with the move. In total during the regular season, Backstrom assisted on two of Burakovsky's 12 goals this season. Both came in the same game against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first game of the season.
Burakovsky and Backstrom played together for just 127:40 minutes of 5v5 this season, scoring seven-total goals, and Burakovsky tallied four of them. With Lars Eller, Burakovsky's primary center for much of the year, Burakovsky scored just nine goals in 553:32 minutes. That’s 1.88 goals per 60 minutes of 5v5 with Backstrom versus 0.98 with Eller.
“Obviously he’s a world-class player,” Burakovsky said. “He’s for sure one of the best in this league. Every day when he’s out there, he shows off how good he is. For me to play with him and just be around him is really, really good for me. To just hang out and see how he prepares and everything, for a young guy, it’s really good to watch older guys to [see] how they prepare and what they do to be successful. I’ve learned a lot from Nicky from on the ice and off the ice. How to act, how to get ready, everything. He’s been a huge impact for me.”
But Backstrom’s impact extends beyond just prospects and promising young players. Following a 6-2 dismantling Game 2 loss against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Backstrom reportedly got vocal in the locker room. For most players in the league, whether it be Ovechkin, Drew Doughty, Ryan Getzlaf or even Phil Kessel, leading a speech in a dressing room seems ordinary. But it’s a bit unusual for Backstrom.
His willingness to speak his mind shows a new level of Backstrom as a hockey player. Backstrom admitted that even just a few years ago, he would have kept his thoughts to himself. He had players like Viktor Kozlov, Mike Knuble and Matt Bradley in the room, veteran leaders, and Backstrom’s one that respects experience. But Backstrom has suddenly become a senior voice in the room. At 29, Backstrom is now the sixth-oldest forward on the team. Beyond this season, Backstrom is the fifth-oldest player rostered on the entire team. He’s the second-longest tenured Capital behind Ovechkin. And perhaps at the realization, Backstrom became a bit more assured that his voice had meaning.
“At this point, I don’t really care anymore,” Backstrom said during breakdown day. “I’m just going to be honest [about] what I think. Maybe I’ve been talking a little bit more than previous years, but….”
But then his voice began to trail off. Stating his opinion for all to hear is still awkward for Backstrom to do. But the fact that it makes him nervous makes his voice all the more respected.
“He’s a soft spoken, polite guy, right? So it’s uncomfortable for him to say things that are uncomfortable,” Matt Niskanen said. “But sometimes that’s what you need to do, you need to step out of your skin, I think. He had some words for us as a group, and then he backed it up. And I have a ton of respect for him, the way he handled himself in this series.”
And while Backstrom says he doesn’t really care anymore, make no mistake, he’s referring to his willingness to speak up. Few care more about the Capitals than Backstrom.
“When things need to be said, and Nick speaks, you listen, because he cares,” T.J. Oshie said. “He thinks about what he says and he says the right things at a lot of the right moments. It’s not very often, but when something needs to be said, Nick does a good job of saying it, and people listen.”
“Man does he care,” Niskanen said. “He’s a guy that just, he wants so bad to have more success, and he cares about the right things. I just have the most respect for Backy in the way he responded this year. When times got uncomfortable and tough, he got better. That was fantastic by him.”
That’s what makes Backstrom such a significant leader. Not only has Backstrom become a vocal leader, he has the ability to lead by example. With the game on the line, count on No. 19 to make the play.
During the playoffs, Backstrom led the team in goals (six) and points (13). Five of those goals and eight of those points came when the Capitals were trailing in a series. Backstrom was the true force for the vast majority of the series, and if his Game 7 performance wasn’t up to par, it may have been because he already gave all he could.
“I thought he was outstanding. Outstanding,” Niskanen said. “Games 5 and 6, [the] most dominant player in the series. Just stepped up his game, dominated. I thought he showed a ton of character there, and I think he kind of ran out of gas maybe in Game 7. He played well. He played really well. That guy laid in on the line, and that’s what you need to see from your top players, and he was fantastic.”
The outcome of the season stung Backstrom, you could see it all over his face. He feels awful. He said he feels like the team missed out on a great opportunity and that they had what it took to go all the way. He’s bummed that his team may lose guys like T.J. Oshie, Justin Williams, Daniel Winnik and Karl Alzner to free agency. He’s sick to his stomach over the disappointment of the fans, who he calls the best fans in the NHL.
But as Backstrom stood at the podium for the conclusion of another discouraging season, he offered some words of encouragement. He says he trusts management to put the Capitals in a position to vie for a championship again, but that it is just up to he and his teammates to get the job done.
Even through those optimistic words, Backstrom couldn’t hide his disappointment. He was quietly fuming at recognizing that breakdown day was the conclusion of another significant regular season followed by an underwhelming postseason, and he wanted everyone else in the organization to be equally annoyed.
“I hope so,” Backstrom said on whether or not everybody else was upset as he was. “I don’t know, I haven’t really talked to anyone, but I hope so. They should be, should be angry, should be mad about it. That’s just me, sorry.”
In true Backstrom fashion, he apologized for unveiling his opinion. He’s not completely comfortable yet, but one of the most complete, quiet players in the NHL is on his way to comfortably becoming a premier voice in the room.