The Quiet Greatness of Nicklas Backstrom

His trophy case will never be loaded like some of his contemporaries. His play isn’t flashy, and he has been to the NHL All-Star Game just once in his career. But, in the not so distant future, Nicklas Backstrom will be gone, and we will be left wondering why we didn’t pay more attention to a brilliant career while we had the chance.

His name is a familiar one. It carries the positive, if not vaguely muted appreciation you use to recall the nice guy seated at your table at your cousin’s wedding last summer.

“Oh, that’s right. Barry! He was a nice guy, wasn’t he. I think he did something in finance? Didn’t get to talk much with him, but he bought our table a couple rounds, picked up my jacket when it fell off my chair, saved the last bread roll for Brenda when she went to the bathroom, and was a great dancer. I think his name was Barry. Or Gary.”

Nicklas Backstrom is the Barry of the National Hockey League. He does it all, and upon further inspection, has put together a spectacular resume. Quietly spectacular. But, spectacular.

Having recently put a bow on his  12th NHL season, the 31-year-old rattled off his sixth consecutive 70 point season, and the eight of his career. Take away the 2011-2012 season when he played 42 games due to injury, and the lockout-shortened 2012-2013 campaign, and Backstrom has eight 70-point efforts in 10 years. His other two seasons? 69 points as a rookie in 2007-2008, and 65 points in 2010-2011. For context, Logan Couture, who is considered a star by most hockey minds, just reached 70 points for the first time in his 10-year career. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has never even hit 70 points. TJ Oshie? No. Evander Kane? Nope. JVR? Justin Williams? Jeff Skinner? None.

Backstrom seems to be up against two major forces, in the battle for relativity in even the most adept hockey conversation. One, is his own quiet personality. For a dozen years, the 4th overall pick in the 2006 draft has been more than happy flying under the radar. His personality doesn’t crave the limelight. His playing style doesn’t rely on blazing speed or a blistering shot, though his teammates are quick to suggest he possesses a wickedly quick release. The other, and perhaps most potent reason for Backstrom’s under-appreciation, is his linemate. The beloved, electrifying, once-in-a-generation goal scoring phenom, Alexander Ovechkin. The ultimate symbiotic relationship, the two European stars have been riding shotgun for one another their entire careers, but the glare of Ovechkin’s style (and now-retired tinted visor) has taken the limelight.

The relative slight doesn’t seem to bother Backstrom. And, if you have any doubts what Ovechkin and the Capitals think of his contributions, check out the Stanley Cup ceremony after their 2018 Cup victory. The first player to hoist Lord Stanley after the Captain? His loyal running mate.

Perhaps the best way to evaluate Backstrom’s consistent greatness is by comparing him to some of the best playmakers in the league, now and historically. The popular response to the “who has been the best passer in hockey this decade?” question generally elicits one of two answers; Sidney Crosby rightfully sits on the throne, though the great Joe Thornton’s name still carries weight for his ability to slow the game and find passing lanes that most NHLers couldn’t dream of finding. Patrick Kane is a sublime playmaker. Ryan Getzlaf has been an elite passer for the better part of 13 seasons. But, if we were to use a 50-assist season as a benchmark, Backstrom’s numbers speak for themselves.

Name Seasons 50-Assist Seasons Career Assists
Joe Thornton 21 10 1065
Nicklas Backstrom 12 9 642
Sidney Crosby 14 8 770
Evgeni Malkin 13 6 611
Patrick Kane 12 5 582
Ryan Getzlaf 14 8 662
Jason Spezza 16 4 583
Blake Wheeler 11 3 454
Claude Giroux 11 5 526
Anze Kopitar 13 2 576

In 12 seasons, he has reached 50 assists nine times. If we adjust that to exclude the lockout shortened season of 2012-2013, he is 9-for-11. Eliminate the aforementioned 2011-2012 year that he missed 40 games with an injury, and only a 47-assist season in 2010-2011 remains in the sub-50 category. It would completely fair to point out Crosby likely goes 14-for-14 if not for lockouts and injury-riddled seasons that robbed hockey fans of a number of prime Crosby years, but that only strengthens Backstrom’s case as an underappreciated superstar. The only contemporary with better consistently elite assist numbers is a top-ten great in Crosby.

Historically, Backstrom’s case holds up even better than when it is matched up with players of today. His APG sits top 20 in the history of the game, but a closer look at Adjusted Assists through a player’s first 12 seasons (taking into account eras, goals scored in different years) reveals the Swede’s production has been even better than that.

Player From (Year – Year) Adjusted Assists in 1st 12 Seasons
Gretzky 1979 – 1991 1163
Boucher 1921 – 1937 859
Lemieux 1984 – 1997 759
Jagr 1990 – 2002 728
Backstrom 2007 – 2019 716
Crosby 2005 – 2017 712
Forsberg 1994 – 2008 699
Oates 1985 – 1997 684
Thornton 1997 – 2010 680
H. Sedin 2000 – 2013 671

Backstrom’s adjusted assist total through twelve seasons sits FIFTH. Ever. In hockey history.

The criticism of Backstrom is, and has always been, that he doesn’t score enough goals. Even Crosby faced such criticism in his career, so he remedied that by padding his trophy case with a pair of Rocket Richard trophies. But Backstrom has scored just 231 goals, good for 46th on the active players leaderboard. He trails names like Bobby Ryan, Alex Steen, Loui Eriksson, and Matt Cullen. So for the hockey fan who evaluates his NHLers on the ability to beat goaltenders, the lack of enthusiasm for Backstrom’s unassuming game is telling.

However, with a triggerman like Ovechkin, along with a number of other scoring threats on the Capitals powerplay over Backstrom’s dozen seasons, he hasn’t had to score all that much. Take a look at Washington’s efficiency on the man advantage over the twelve seasons with number 19 on the ice.

Year Powerplay % Powerplay Rank
2018-2019 20.89 % 10th
2017-2018 22.54 % 7th
2016-2017 23.08 % 4th
2015-2016 21.91 % 5th
2014-2015 25.32 % 1st
2013-2014 23.37 % 2nd
2012-2013 26.83 % 1st
2011-2012 16.73 % 18th
2010-2011 17.49 % 16th
2009-2010 25.24 % 1st
2008-2009 25.15 % 2nd
2007-2008 18.93 % 8th

In twelve seasons, the Caps’ powerplay has fallen outside the top ten just twice. One of those seasons (which also happens to be the worst), was the 2011-2012 campaign when Backstrom missed half the year. Seven of the aforementioned seasons saw him facilitate a top-five man advantage.

No one knows how long Nicklas Backstrom will be in the National Hockey League, or more importantly, how long he will be an elite producer for a Capitals team that is a perennial Stanley Cup contender. But let’s appreciate him while he still throws the number 19 jersey on his back. Maybe you don’t value the eight different seasons he has received votes for the Frank J. Selke trophy as the league’s best defensive forward. Perhaps you attribute much of his success to the Great 8. But you will be hard pressed to find many more consistently elite playmakers over the course of NHL history.

Backstrom has been that wedding guest at your table who does it all, and you don’t get a chance to thank before he quietly takes a cab ride home. That cab ride should, and will be to the Hockey Hall of Fame, right where Nicklas Backstrom belongs.

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