Consistency. Accuracy. Underrated. Class act. Those are the words that may come to mind when thinking of Nicklas Backstrom.
Almost silently, the Swede has been one of the NHL’s best centers in the game, and his standout career will be on display yet again as he skates in his 1000th game Thursday against the Buffalo Sabres.
He’ll become the second active Washington player to hit 1,000 games with the franchise, joining captain and longtime teammate and friend Alex Ovechkin.
“It means a lot and, obviously to do it with the same team, too, is very special,” Backstrom said of the milestone. “Washington has meant so much to me and to be able to play 1,000 games with this team is going to be a special feeling for sure.”
Going back to 2006, it was Ovechkin who made the announcement at the draft that Washington was taking selecting Backstrom, the top-ranked European skater at the time, fourth overall.
“We wanted to get one of the three big centers [Backstrom, Jonathan Toews, Jordan Staal] heading into the draft... the whole organization thought everything feel our way pretty well,” general manager Brian MacLellan told reporters of No. 19. “We knew we had an intelligent player. He’s fun to watch on subtle things [he does].”
Backstrom officially join the NHL ranks in 2007 and made his debut on Oct. 5, skating on a line with Alex Semin and Michael Nylander in a game against the Atlanta Thrashers. He’d record his first NHL point that night — fittingly, an assist — en route to a 3-1 victory.
“Obviously I was very nervous,” Backstrom said of his NHL debut. “It was in Atlanta. It wasn’t really sold out there ‘but it was still a big deal playing in your first game. Yeah, I remember it like it was yesterday.
Through 82 games in his rookie year, he racked up 14 goals and 55 assists for 69 points in 82 games. He’d finish second in Calder voting and also garner consideration for the Selke (NHL’s top defensive forward) and Lady Byng (sportsmanship/”gentlemanly conduct” combined with a high standard of playing ability).
From then on out, Backstrom would build a legacy in D.C. Playing alongside Ovechkin, the duo proved to be one of the most lethal in the NHL, and his outstanding playmaking ability would lead to a remarkable amount of assists. When his ELC came to an end in 2010, he signed a 10-year deal to remain in the District — and that’s the moment he said he knew that he would be a franchise player.
“I fell in love with the city. I fell in love with the team. This is where I wanted to be,” Backstrom recalled. “I obviously had a dream of staying here. Played all those years and signed a new deal, but in this business, too, you never know what’s going to happen. I got lucky and now we’re here.”
It’d take more than a decade — and hundreds of helpers and points later — for Backstrom to capture the ultimate goal: The Stanley Cup. At long last, on June 7, 2018, Ovi hoisted the Cup for the first time in franchise history, and immediately passed it to his right-hand man.
“We’ve been together since Day 1,” captain Alex Ovechkin said of Backstrom. “The chemistry that we have on the ice is tremendous... he’s a leader.”
"F**king rights." Nicklas Backstrom takes the Stanley Cup from Alexander Ovechkin and they go for a skate. pic.twitter.com/Qp8G74QDbC— Brady Trettenero (@BradyTrett) June 8, 2018
Finally reaching that goal also marked a turning point for Backstrom in his career.
“I think the special moment was winning here... just to see the city turn around, become a hockey city,” Backstrom recalled. “It’s been a great 14 years here.”
All while building a legacy in Washington, the centerman has been among the NHL’s most consistent players to date.
Through 14 straight seasons, Backstrom’s picked up at least 30 assists, and he’s the only NHLer since 2007 to register 700 assists. He also entered this season as just one of three players (along with Connor McDavid and Patrick Kane) to record at least 20 goals and 50 assists in four of the last five seasons.
In seasons with at least 50GP, the 33-year-old has never had a season with under 50 points. He has at least 50 in seven straight seasons and has quietly gone under-the-radar as one of the league’s most consistent — and dangerous — forwards. And in his seasons with under 50 games, he’s produced at over a point-per-game pace, and so far in 2020-21, he leads Washington with 44 points in 43 games.
Overall, Backstrom’s recorded 714 assists and 971 points through 999 games so far. He’s the highest-scoring member of the 2006 NHL Draft class and ranks four in assists and sixth in points among Swedish-born players.
He’s also one of just 23 players in NHL history to register at least 700 helpers before hitting 1,000 games. Twenty-one of 23 of those players are in the Hockey Hall of Fame; the remaining two are Jaromir Jagr and Sidney Crosby, who are not yet eligible for the HHOF and are still actively playing.
Beyond his scoring prowess, Backstrom’s defensive player is also held in high regard. He’s won over 8,000 faceoffs in his career (he’s won over half his draws) and has 599 blocks, as well as 705 takeaways.
“He’s always a dangerous player, plays the game the right way. He’s an honest player... intelligent player and extremely skilled from all aspects being able to be a good defensive player, a penalty kill player, a power-play player, a 5-on-5 player...there’s not a lot of weakness to his game from the outside and I think everybody knows that and that everybody sees that,” head coach Peter Laviolette noted.
Backstrom will be honored prior to puck drop on Thursday, and said he’s not sure when the emotions will hit. Regardless, the meaning of that milestone is well known.
“Every hockey player has a dream to play in the NHL, and to be able to do it for this long is very fortunate,” Backstrom said, adding, “The longer you’re in the league, the more you learn. You learn from every game and mature as a player.”