That's 1,000 Games for Nicklas Backstrom. Next up: the Hall of Fame

The forever underrated Capitals center is piling up assists at a rate consistent only with playmakers who have earned calls to the Hall.
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USATSI_15902017

Pageantry? Attention? Publicity? For Nicklas Backstrom?

It was extremely deserved but felt strange to see for one of the most underrated and under-celebrated players in NHL history relative to his talent level. Backstrom received a royal introduction to his 1,000th game from his Washington Capitals teammates, with their sticks raised to create a tunnel as he took the ice, not to mention a silver stick and a pre-game photo shoot, in the moments before Thursday night’s game against the Buffalo Sabres.

“You’ve got to stay healthy, and a lot of times an injury can stop that, so I think for a lot of players a game milestone is a huge thing,” Backstrom said earlier this week. “1K, it means a lot. It means you’ve been in the league a long time.”

“It’s the mark of longevity, of doing things the right away, of playing the game the right way,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette told reporters after Thursday’s game. “He’s been such a valuable, important piece of this organization for so many years. And to take a minute and honor him for what he’s done and what he’s accomplished I think is important.”

The idea of being showered with praise has always felt foreign to Backstrom, who is most famous for spending his career in the shadow of someone much more famous: Alex Ovechkin, arguably the greatest goal-scorer of all-time. Backstrom once summarized why he loved that arrangement during a 2016 interview with The Hockey News.

“The media, they’re always asking me about how ‘Ovie’ gets the headlines, ‘Ovie’ gets the spotlight,” Backstrom said at the time. “I would say, ‘Yeah, it’s perfect. I like it that way. He deserves all the credit, too. He’s such a good goal-scorer, such a great player for the game, such a face of the league. I’m not going to be like, ‘Hey, I’m here.’ That’s the thing. I’m just going to try and do my job. That’s the way it’s been, and that’s the way I want to be.”

But with a career spanning 1,000 games and including a Stanley Cup, it’s difficult for Backstrom to hide what he’s accomplished at this point. It's fair to wonder if the Hall of Fame selection committee will acknowledge it someday, too.

Could Backstrom end up a Hall of Famer? If we judge him by the most obvious surface criteria, he may get overlooked as he has by awards voters his whole career. He’s never been a first- or second-team all-star. He’s never won a major individual award: no Hart Trophy as league MVP, no Art Ross as the scoring champ, no Selke Trophy as the best defensive forward, despite being fringe contenders for each at a few points in his career. But he’s existed on a plane somewhere better than “very good” but below “generationally great” from the moment he debuted in the NHL, and plenty of players of that ilk have earned Hall calls, from Mats Sundin to Marian Hossa.

And Backstrom may one day be acknowledged among the all-time best at what he does best: setting up others. He’s just the 23rd player in NHL history to have 700 career assists by game 1,000. All 21 Hall-eligible players on that list have been inducted, and the other two, Jaromir Jagr and Sidney Crosby, are Hall of Fame locks. From 2007-08, Backstrom’s rookie season, to present day, his 715 assists lead all NHLers and are 29 more than the next-closest player. The only players with more points than Backstrom since he entered the league are four first-ballot Hall of Fame talents: Ovechkin, Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Patrick Kane. Backstrom has led the NHL in assists once and cracked the top three six times.

How can such an impressive resume go relatively unnoticed? It probably, as always, harkens to the Ovechkin factor. While Backstrom undoubtedly has made Ovechkin better, passing the puck to the goal-scoring G.O.A.T. can inflate the assist total. At least, that’s a potential narrative. The truth is that Backstrom would be a great playmaker with or without Ovie, as evidenced by the fact Backstrom has continued producing at close to a point-per-game pace even in recent seasons when Evgeny Kuznetsov usurped him as Ovechkin’s regular center.

Of Backstrom’s 715 assists, 292 have come on Ovechkin goals. If you threw all those apples out of the barrel, Backstrom would still have 423 assists, and that would still be 31st-most in the league since he debuted.

Backstrom, 33, has four years left on his contract and continues to post prolific assist totals, sitting 13th in the NHL this season. He’s been extremely durable in his career, playing in 94.1 of Washington’s games since he debuted, so he’s a safe bet to become the 33rd member of the 800-assist club. Only one eligible 800-assist player isn’t in the Hall of Fame, and Backstrom can get to 900 if he averages 40 assists and change over the rest of his contract. He’d be the 20th player to reach that benchmark. So Backstrom can go ahead and start dreaming about getting the Hall call someday. 

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