It’d be fair to say that entering the start of the new year, the season Nicklas Backstrom was having wasn’t all that impressive. Through 35 games, Backstrom still hadn’t netted his 10th goal of the campaign and his 30 points, while still in the league’s top 50, were far from the best mark in the league. His company on leaderboards included Eric Staal, Chris Kreider and Artem Anisimov, among others.
But since Jan. 1, no team has been nearly as hot as the Capitals, who have shot up the standings and taken command of the Metropolitan Division, and no player has been quite as prolific as Backstrom. He didn’t waste much time climbing the scoring register, either.
Come the fifth day of 2017, Backstrom netted an assist in Washington’s victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets and it marked the start of what would be a 10-game, four-goal, 17-point scoring streak. The highlight of that run was an outstanding one-goal, four-point outing against the Pittsburgh Penguins as the Capitals picked up their seventh-straight victory. When his point streak was eventually snapped, he went two games without finding the score sheet. How did he respond? With a new, seven-game point streak, one that's currently ongoing, over which time he’s added another four goals and 13 points to his totals. All told, there has only been four games since the start of 2017 that Backstrom hasn’t notched a point in.
It’s been the second-half dominance from Backstrom that has vaulted him well into the conversation for both the Art Ross and Hart Trophy, too. Since Jan. 1, his 30 points are tops in the league, three ahead of Brad Marchand, and Backstrom’s 22 assists are far and away the best total of any player over that span. At the exact midpoint of his season, Backstrom had 38 points. With the way he’s been scoring since, he’s on pace to be a near 90-point player.
There are cases to be made for each of the top four scorers in the league, a list which includes Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby and Brent Burns, but Backstrom’s season has almost mirrored that of the Edmonton Oilers phenom. In fact, the only thing separating Backstrom from McDavid is a single goal. It’d be hard to know that, though, because, generally speaking, Backstrom isn’t even used to being the biggest story on his own team.
Call it the curse of being a Capital, but playing alongside the likes of Alex Ovechkin and Braden Holtby doesn’t allow Backstrom’s star to ever shine the brightest. Holtby, as we’ve come to see in the past two seasons, is one of the league’s elite goaltenders, deserving of attention alongside the Carey Prices and Henrik Lundqvists of the Eastern Conference. And Ovechkin's game has always spoken for itself. More than 550 goals and 1,000-plus points makes him the story of every game he plays in, and that he has one of the more exuberant on-ice personalities certainly doesn’t hurt.
One could say that same curse extends into the debates about how essential Backstrom is to the Capitals' success. Casual observers of the happenings in Washington see Ovechkin blasting home yet another goal and assume that Backstrom, who has 43 assists this season, has been allowed to cash in on riding Ovechkin’s coattails. That’s never been the case, though, and it’s not this season, either. Only 13 of Backstrom’s assists, less than one-third, have come on goals scored by Ovechkin, and all indications point to Backstrom faring just as well when he’s been split from the ‘Great 8.’
Backstrom has played 751 minutes at 5-on-5 this season, 439 of which have been alongside Ovechkin. Over that span, the duo has a Corsi for percentage of 47.1 despite primarily starting their shifts in the offensive zone. Of course, it’s no surprise the pair combines for a goals for percentage of 63.4, but that’s what happens when you have arguably the greatest goal scorer of all-time on the ice. Away from Ovechkin, though, Backstrom’s goals for percentage has dropped by less than one percent to 62.5 and his Corsi for has leapt up to 53.1 percent despite the fact he’s starting a greater percentage of his shifts in the defensive zone.
Detractors may also consider Backstrom’s 23 power play points as a reason to disregard what they feel is a bloated overall point total, but Backstrom hasn’t just been getting the job done when the Capitals are up a man. Rather, Backstrom has been one of the most productive players in the entire league at 5-on-5. Among skaters who’ve seen 500 minutes of action at 5-on-5, only five have put up more points than Backstrom’s 32, only four have registered more assists per 60 minutes and Backstrom’s 2.55 points per 60 minutes rank eighth in the league.
So, does Backstrom win the Hart? No, and he’s probably not even close unless he maintains his current second-half pace and gets somewhere close to 100 points by the time the campaign closes. The issue is that every other player has that little bit extra going in their favor. For McDavid, it’s that he’s been the face of a franchise turnaround and the catalyst for what appears to be a post-season berth for the Oilers. Burns is putting together one of the most incredible seasons of any blueliner in the past 10, maybe 20, years. And Crosby is, well, Crosby. When you’re the greatest player in the world — so talented that you’re one point off the scoring lead despite playing eight fewer games — landing a handful Hart votes shouldn’t be a problem.
But Hart or not, Backstrom’s piecing together one of the best campaigns of his career and doing it without much flash or fanfare. He may not make the game-saving stops or score the highlight reel goals, but Backstrom deserves every bit of praise that comes his way for the Capitals success this season. And if these winning ways continue, we can think of another trophy he’d be much more happy to take home.
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