Can we start with the following premise, please? In the middle of his 10th NHL season, Nicklas Backstrom is underrated. Actually, fix that. He’s criminally underrated.
We consider the Capitals center such a fixture here in Washington — where he is predated only by Alex Ovechkin and Ryan Zimmerman among pro athletes — that such a claim might seem silly. Yet marry the following: Since Backstrom entered the league in 2007-08, only six players have scored more points. Those players have combined for eight Hart Trophies as the league’s MVP, 15 first-team all-NHL nods, seven second-team all-NHL appearances and 29 invitations to the NHL All-Star Game.
Backstrom’s baubles over that time: one NHL All-Star Game, which came last year. Oh, and he once came in 10th in the voting for the Selke Trophy as his league’s top defensive forward. So that’s nice. Backstrom’s mantel back home in Gavle, Sweden, must hold only candlesticks and picture frames.
How is that possible?
“You’re asking the same question I’ve been asking forever,” Caps defenseman Karl Alzner said.
Perhaps the rest of the league doesn’t see him as we do, right here in Washington, where Ovechkin has explosively been converting Backstrom’s quietly brilliant passes into goals for an athletic lifetime. It’s worth asking around.
“The way he passes, the way he sees the ice, the way he thinks the game is very rare,” Detroit center Henrik Zetterberg said.
“He’s one of the top three passers in the game,” Vancouver winger Daniel Sedin said.
“We grabbed a scouting report from another team out of the garbage can in the visiting [locker] room,” Caps General Manager Brian MacLellan said.
You don’t say? Do tell.
“Here’s Nicky,” MacLellan said, reading directly from the paper Friday: “Very smart. Great passer and setup man. Strong on the puck. High-end stick skills. Good shot with quick release but prefers to pass. Can be dominant when he pushes the pace.”
That is the league’s assessment of a player who — apparently in complete silence — is building a Hall of Fame résumé.
“I don’t really care about that stuff,” Backstrom said Friday.
Fine. I do care. Look at other sports during the time Backstrom has been in the NHL: The guy who has driven in the seventh-most runs in baseball since 2007 is Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers — a six-time all-star and five-time Silver Slugger winner who was the National League’s MVP in 2011. The basketball player with the seventh-most points is Russell Westbrook, a five-time all-star who’s an MVP candidate this season. The quarterback who has thrown for the seventh-most yards is Aaron Freaking Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers, a two-time NFL MVP and six-time Pro Bowler.
These are stars, every single one. Raw numbers almost always produce recognition. Just not for Backstrom.
So there must be something hidden here. Maybe he doesn’t pass the eye test? But then every night, he does something like he did Wednesday, early in the first period against Boston. Backstrom intercepted a Bruins pass inside his own blue line, looked up immediately and saw T.J. Oshie at center ice.
What happened next was … I mean, wow.
“That’s a high-level pass,” Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen said, eyebrows raised.
“It takes some touch,” Coach Barry Trotz said, smirking.
“For me, that’s an impossible pass,” Alzner said.
“Nicky’s Nicky,” Oshie said.
Nicky being Nicky, he lifted a pass not even a foot off the ice — high enough to rise above the sticks of Bruins Brad Marchand and Zdeno Charra but not so high that Oshie had to wait for it to come down. Backstrom made sure, though, that the puck landed flat on the ice so Oshie could handle it easily. The result: a one-on-none breakaway that Oshie converted into Backstrom’s 36th assist of the season.
“To process that play that quick, and then to thread the needle and have it land flat, I mean … ” Niskanen said, shaking his head. “It’s an overlooked skill to put a puck through traffic like that and still have it land flat. Only the high, high-end players do that at game speed.”
Exactly no part of the play happened by accident. Backstrom’s assessment: “I’ve done it many times.”
True. But if he has done stuff like this many times — “We see it every day,” Trotz said — then why doesn’t he get recognized for it?
There are a couple of likely culprits. First: logistics. To make an All-Star Game, Backstrom is not only frequently behind other prominent Eastern Conference centers — notably Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin of Pittsburgh — but the NHL’s requirement that each team be represented often has put him behind, say, John Tavares of the Islanders or Claude Giroux of the Flyers. Though Trotz touts him for the Selke and the Capitals believe he has the skills to win one, he doesn’t play on the penalty-kill unit because the Caps prefer to save him for the power play and five-on-five.
But there are other factors that keep Backstrom’s national profile low, too. Namely, Nicklas Backstrom.
“Nick’s not that person that seeks attention or wants to be that way,” said Zetterberg, who has played with Backstrom on Sweden’s national teams. “He doesn’t want to stand out.”
Ovechkin, on the other hand, does. The spotlight and the eye have long naturally fallen on the big Russian, who has benefited most from Backstrom’s unassuming nature. No Capital has ever racked up more than Backstrom’s 514 assists. But an incredible 206 have set up goals by Ovechkin. It is Backstrom’s reality that he can score a goal and set up two others, as he did Wednesday against Boston, and have the headline on NHL.com read, “Ovechkin powers Capitals past Bruins.”
“That’s how he likes it,” Sedin said.
Indeed, he does. Even now, a decade into his career, Backstrom searches for ways to talk about himself. “There’s a little bit of Swedish culture, I think, to put your team in front of yourself,” he said. And the efficiency in his game — which includes a craftiness and strength in warding opponents off the puck, not to mention a willingness and ability to cover for the mistakes of teammates — scream “solid,” not “star.” So some of his greatest strengths in terms of hockey become his greatest weaknesses in terms of garnering attention.
“He just kind of skates at one speed,” MacLellan said. “He doesn’t go into that extra gear where you go, ‘Whoa.’ He just kind of flows into the right areas, in the right spot, doing the right thing. It’s not flashy. It’s cheap jerseys not fast, and it’s not a change of speed. It’s more blending in.”
There, right there. That’s what Backstrom has mastered. Blending in. He blends in on the Capitals. He blends into Washington, as a sports town. He blends into the NHL as if wearing camouflage.