When Tom Wilson scored his power-play goal in the third period of the Capitals’ 4-1 win over the Islanders Monday night, it was a play that Caps fans of recent vintage have come to know well and appreciate - only this time, it made history. With the primary assist on the goal, Nicklas Backstrom earned the point that pushed him ahead of Peter Bondra for second place on the all-time franchise points list with 826 points.
It was entirely fitting that Backstrom should have been the conductor of this piece in three movements – patiently skating around the far edge of the right wing circle to give himself time to survey the situation and give himself a better passing angle, waiting until a defender changed his stick angle to guard against a pass back to the point, and then snapping a pass through that opening to Tom Wilson in the slot for an open look and a goal. The only thing not making it a thoroughly “Backstrom” moment was earning the assist on a power play goal by Alex Ovechkin (he added an assist on an Ovechkin empty net goal later to reach 827 career points).
And it is that Backstrom-Ovechkin relationship, now cemented at the top of the all-time points rankings in club history (Ovechkin has 1,150 points), that calls on us to take a moment to appreciate just what it is we are witnessing, for it is unlikely to happen again in our lifetimes as Caps fans.
First, a snapshot. Through Monday’s game, here are the active Capitals in the system who have dressed for the club in this or a previous season, ranked by career points with the club:
That is quite a gap from Backstrom to the third-place member of this list, John Carlson. And, while Carlson stands a good chance of becoming the all-time points leader in franchise history among defensemen (Calle Johansson had 474 points as a Capital), that is an essay for another day. Defensemen are not part of the conversation to address the question of who might challenge for a top-two spot in the points rankings in the future.
Next, some arithmetic. Backstrom is now in his 12th season with the Caps, a span over which he has been almost a point-per-game player (0.99/game, to be exact). His current contract runs through next season. At his career scoring pace, he would top 950 points as a Capital by the end of the 2019-2020 season. Leaving aside the matter of a contract extension with the club, that would be a high bar for anyone to clear to jump into the top two in points scored as a Capital.
So, among current Capitals, is there a candidate? The first and obvious pick would be Evgeny Kuznetsov. He does have particulars that make his candidacy attractive. While his career points per game (0.80) over the last three-plus years does not approach Backstrom, as he has come into his own as an elite player, it has risen to 0.92 points per game. And, his current absence to concussion notwithstanding, he has been durable, appearing in 323 of 328 games over the last four full seasons. Add to that the fact that Kuznetsov is still only 26 years old, and the possibility of his challenging for a top-two spot in the future improves. What would it take, though?
Kuznetsov is skating with the club but has not, as we write this, been cleared to return to the lineup. Even if he does return on Friday against the New Jersey Devils, he could appear in a maximum of 76 games this season. If he scores at his recent pace (0.92 points per game), plays out the rest of this year’s schedule and averages 80 games played per season for the duration of his current contract (expiring at the end of the 2024-2025 season), he would finish at 783 points. And that assumes no games lost to a shutdown of the schedule at the end of the current collective bargaining agreement. Clearly, either Kuznetsov will have to ramp up his game even further (while remaining durable), and/or he will have to sign a contract extension with the club that would begin when he is 33 years old.
Are there any other obvious candidates? What would such a candidate look like? Looking at the current system roster, he would have to be a forward, would have to be in the formative years of his career, and he would have to have demonstrated at least the potential to be a high-volume point-getter. Only two current Capitals come close to satisfying those criteria. One is Jakub Vrana. Age is on his side (he will not turn 23 until the end of February), but his early production does not suggest he will become the sort of point producer Backstrom and Ovechkin were and that Kuznetsov has been. With 47 points in 118 career games through Monday, he would have to make a considerable leap or two to get into the conversation as a serious candidate.
Making a considerable leap or two to get into the conversation is something that might also be said for Andre Burakovsky. He, like Vrana, has age on his side (he will turn 24 in February). However, he is averaging a bit less than half a point per game in his career to date (0.46 through 276 games played) and has suffered from consistency issues that have stunted his development as a reliable, top-notch point producer.
What all this sterile talk points to is that Caps fans have been blessed. Kierkegaard said that “It is perfectly true, as the philosophers say, that life must be understood backwards. But they forget the other proposition, that it must be lived forwards.” One way to think of this is that we still have years to watch and appreciate the artistry and exploits of Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin. And, it is only after the body of work of Backstrom and Ovechkin has been completed that we will be able to look back and appreciate them for their considerable level of achievement.
In the here and now, however, we should realize that what we are seeing from these uniquely gifted individuals – now together at the top of the all-time points list – we are never likely to see again in a Washington Capitals sweater.