WASHINGTON, D.C. – Nicklas Backstrom sits in the front row of the dimly lit film room, wireless keyboard resting on his lap. The pitch: As the Washington Capitals’ center neared 500 career assists, which he eventually reached last weekend in Ottawa, watch as Backstrom watches…himself. What does he see? How does he think? What makes the soft-spoken, saucer-passing Swede, bordering 30 years old and yet third among active players in helpers, so dangerous?
Where to begin?
“It’s up to you, man,” he says, baseball cap turned backwards, casual as usual. Some hemming and hawing ensues. Near the door, Capitals video coach Brett Leonhardt, who had culled together the special clips package showcasing Backstrom’s highlights from this season, stops in his tracks.
“Well, f—ing show him number one,” Leonhardt says. “Hit that space bar.” Backstrom obliges. Tap. “Here I’m going to tell you what Backie’s thinking right here. Through the middle with speed, kick out…”
“Well, well, first of all…”
Leonhardt cedes the floor, encouraging the analysis.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah…”
“I’m coming here in the middle. Passing out to O…”
Onscreen, approaching the New Jersey Devils’ blue line on New Years’ Eve, Backstrom handles the puck and flicks his wrist. A saucer pass zips to his backhand side, where O -- captain Alex Ovechkin -- barrels down the left wing. Backstrom, meanwhile, keeps driving the center of the ice. The sequence hasn’t finished yet, but Backstrom remembers what came next. From his perch in the theatre, he delivers the punch line in perfect deadpan.
“…it’s actually the first time in two years he gave me back that pass.”
The humor of Nicklas Backstrom can be summarized with a simple rule: If you turn your back, watch out. Defenseman Nate Schmidt learned the hard way one afternoon at Washington’s practice facility, waiting in line for lunch. “I see this face pop over my shoulder,” Schmidt recalls. “It’s Nickie and he goes…” (Schmidt drops into a voice that sounds a little Silence of the Lambs-ish, just as creepy, but higher-pitched.) “…’HEY SCHMITTY.’ I was like, ‘Hey man.’ He goes, ‘Just thought I’d come over and say hi. It looked like you were lonely.’ Then he just walks away.”
The brilliance of Nicklas Backstrom can be boiled down to a similar, albeit twisted, credo: If he turns his back, keep watch just the same. After all, few NHL players excel better at reading the ice—or at staying composed—while faced away from the action. Watch him quarterback the Capitals’ power play. The movements are plodding, calculated. “He waits for you to screw up,” Schmidt says. “He waits you out, waits you out, and then you screw up and then he makes you look foolish.”
From the half-wall he will loop toward opposing penalty-killers, daring them to step up, and then retreat. He will pivot, change direction, stickhandle to bide time, maybe loop some more, and sometimes halt altogether. Occasionally, as the clock ticks down, fans will howl for him to act. For them, the act is too…boring. For Backstrom?
“I’m trying to outsmart guys,” he says. “Sometimes I’m overthinking, and sometimes I’m not. I actually like screwing with the other team.”
Next clip. An example: Backstrom leads a 3-on-2 rush and enters the offensive zone with control. Just beyond the blue line, he chips the puck sideways to winger Marcus Johansson. Then he heads straight for the backchecking defenseman. Pause. “He wants to go stick on puck,” Backstrom says. “So my philosophy is, if I can hit that winger and then grab the D-man’s stick right after and kind of hold it a little bit, so he can’t swing it over, then the winger has more room to operate. He doesn’t have a stick he needs to worry about.”
It all happens in stride, a subtle knock on the defenseman’s stick that opens a shooting lane for Johansson, barely noticeable to an untrained observer. (Indeed, this particular clip required some rewinding.) But Backstrom is all about details. As a kid, he’d memorize the sticks and gloves used by his favorite players in the Swedish Elite League, mimicking their moves on his outdoor rink. “He was very interested, curious,” says his father, Anders Backstrom. The original clip against the Devils continues with Backstrom receiving Ovechkin’s pass at his feet, kicking the puck ahead with his skate—just out of defenseman Jon Merril’s reach - whirling to his forehand, and whipping a shot at the net that linemate T.J. Oshie punched back for a rebound goal.
Earlier this season, Backstrom came to Washington’s equipment staff with an unusual request: remove a thumbprint-sized decal from the side of his helmet visor, located back next to the ear, because he felt it was blocking the outer limits of his peripheral vision. Ex-Capitals forward Brooks Laich remembers once asking why Backstrom often used lulls in power plays to tap the top of the puck with the heel of his stick blade. “He said he’s just clearing snow off the puck for better control of his passes,” Laich says.
Much of Backstrom’s skill stems from self-awareness – what he can and cannot get away with. The son of a former stay-at-home defenseman in the Swedish Elite League, Backstrom was never an exceptionally fast skater, so he grew up learning how body position and abrupt turns could give him an edge. He’s deceptively strong, especially in his legs, and routinely fends off opponents along the wall with one arm, swatting them away like mosquitos. “He’s mastered his style of game, what he’s physically capable of,” Laich says. “There’s different types of intimidation. There are guys who are going to run you over. Then there are guys who are two steps ahead of you mentally. Whatever you’re going to do, he’s going to counter and beat you.”
“It’s so tight out there today,” Backstrom explains. “It’s all about dragging guys to you, and then make play, so you can give your teammate more room and more time to operate. I feel like that’s my job, too.”
It has been his job in Washington for 692 games over nine-plus regular seasons, ever since management asked Ovechkin to announce his new sidekick’s name at the 2006 draft. During that span, Backstrom has notched more assists than anyone in the league except Joe Thornton and Henrik Sedin. The 500th came not two minutes into the open period against Ottawa last Saturday, when Backstrom carried the puck down the middle against defenseman Erik Karlsson. Seeing that Karlsson’s stick was angled inside, and spying T.J. Oshie open on the left side, a backhanded pass hit Oshie for a one-timer that the winger pumped past goalie Mike Condon.
“No fancy,” Backstrom says in the film room, three days before the milestone moment, speaking generally about what he’s seeing in himself. This would serve well a personal motto, but teammates might disagree. During one of his first NHL games, goalie Braden Holtby was watching Backstrom on a power play breakout. “He came into the slot and with one hand he just backhand-flicked a saucer pass over a guy’s stick to the far side. Like it was nothing. Just one hand. Nothing. I was like, ‘Oh, okay, this guy’s good.’” Laich remembers when Backstrom had consecutive 4-assist games against Florida and Pittsburgh, and “on the bench we had to put our gloves over our mouths because we were just chuckling, how bad it was making everybody on the opposition look. He was just torching and dissecting them.
"There were more times on the bench when people went, 'Wow,' when Nicklas had the puck than with anybody else on our team. And that’s a pretty big thing to say considering what No. 8 [Ovechkin] does night in and night out."
Which perhaps explains why, even though Backstrom publicly ho-hummed his first career all-star game selection last season, fellow Capitals were thrilled that the spotlight was finally shining on him. (“Could this not have happened eight years ago?” says Laich, who was on the roster at the time. “Who’s picking these damn things?”) More surprising was how, at least behind the scenes, Backstrom seemed to actually…enjoy the Nashville festivities. “He doesn’t really like stuff like that too much, but I think he’d been snubbed for so long that he went into it really wanting to enjoy it, kind of soaked everything in,” says Holtby, who was also at his first all-star game. “You don’t see Nick do that too often. It was kind of cool. He realized how hard it is to get there.”
Backstrom, on the other hand, wasn’t too keen on dredging up past accolades. (“Yeah, it was alright,” he says. “What are you asking me here? It was good. Fun to try.”) But then again, seeing him jig atop honkytonk tables or strut down Broadway in cowboy boots would’ve been miles from the consistent, stoic character who’s only missed seven games since a concussion-riddled ’11-12. “It’s good that you’re fired up,” Backstrom says. “But I think you can have two different ones. You can get fired up on the outside and need to talk yourself into it, and you’re fired up inside and be focused on your good passes, stuff like that.”
He pauses. The film’s been stopped for a while. Just countless frames of Backstrom squeezing passes into pinhole windows, finding open teammates across the ice, always seeming to find the right spot full seconds before the puck ends up there. No fancy. What he says, though, next is somewhat surprising.
“Usually if I’m a little mad too,” he says, “I get myself going…”
Hang on. Backstrom? Mad? The guy Schmidt says simply spits aside frustration “in one big loogie”?
“He’s going to be stubborn like that,” Anders Backstrom says. “And if he’s mad like that, he’s always going to play his best games after. You couldn’t talk to him for a couple hours. But next game he was pretty good.”
Though Backstrom is averaging just 0.60 assists per game this season, a career low, his raw totals overall (24) and on the power play (12) still lead the reigning Presidents’ Trophy winners, who were tied for second in the Metro Division through Monday. He’s riding a three-game point streak, which continued with a goal and an assist in Sunday’s 4-1 win over Montreal, and regardless of his wingers is usually coach Barry Trotz’s go-to pivot for key defensive situations. Lately, this is a particular source of pride.
“Defensively, maybe, I’ve been trying to take more responsibility,” Backstrom says. “I always think to myself that I don’t want to be a player that shows up every 10th game. I’d rather have five decent games at the same level than one really good and four bad ones.”
More than any other trait, teammates and opponents alike rave about Backstrom’s consistency. His highlights seem ordinary because, in his repertoire, they are. “I think just because not a lot of guys can do it, and the way he does it, how easy he makes it work, “says Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik, once a longtime foe in Pittsburgh, “it’s something guys marvel at.”
The film show ends. The last clip showed Backstrom feathering a pass to Andre Burakovsky, a 21-year-old fellow Swede who lived with Backstrom during his first NHL season. Burakovsky isn’t even visible on-screen when Backstrom says he decides that he’ll give up the puck. Eventually, Burakovsky will appear, enter the offensive zone behind Backstrom, take the drop pass and score in stride. But first Backstrom waits. And waits. And waits…
“Everyone is different,” he says. “Everyone has their own things too, like tricks. I try to give myself a little more time. When you do that, maybe you can get a little bit ahead of them too, so they can’t catch you right away. It’ll give you a couple extra seconds to make a good play.”