Nicklas Backstrom is probably the most-underrated player in the NHL, hands down. His contributions to the Capitals are appreciated by his fans and teammates alike. Coach Barry Trotz is Nicklas’ biggest advocate when it comes to his all-around excellence, stating multiple times throughout the 2014-15 campaign that Backstrom should be a Selke Trophy candidate. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. But as Nick recovers from offseason hip surgery, there is a question I have asked myself over and over that must be answered: Will Backstrom ever score 30 goals again?
In his only 30+-goal season of his eight-year career in 2009-10, Backstrom found the back of the net 33 times. He added 68 assists that season to finish with a career-high 101 points. Since then, the 27-year old Swede has had goal totals of 18, 14, 8 (48 games), 18, and another 18-goal season this past year. The closest total to his 33-goal season was his 22-goal sophomore campaign. So what happened? Why hasn’t he come close to matching that number? There are a couple of reasons, but I’ll focus on the biggest: Backstrom doesn’t shoot the puck.
While Backstrom has established himself as one of the best passers in the game, his unwillingness to shoot the puck on power plays and other opportunities is taking goals away. He has a tendency to look for a pass to Ovechkin, instead of taking the shot himself. While it’s a good thing he doesn’t want to be selfish, it’s also a bad thing if he has a clear-cut opportunity and decides to pass. Backstrom shot the puck a total of 222 times in ’09-10, and since then, he has shot the puck 202, 95, 82, 196, and 153 times. His shot percentage was 14.9%, and came close to matching two seasons later with a 14.7%. His shot percentage has not been double digits in all the other years.
Another possibility for his lack of goal-scoring may have to do with the type of game former head coach Bruce Boudreau implemented that year. The run and gun system the team played that year saw the Caps lead the league in scoring. Backstrom may have simply benefitted from being in an offense-first system. But if you look at his point totals since that season, he’s been a very productive player:
2012-13: (8-40-48) *48-game season
Backstrom led the league in assists this season, a true testament to the type of player he is. He also led the league in scoring at one point. But Backstrom’s biggest weakness may be his unwillingness to shoot the puck. It’s understandable that Nicklas wants to get Ovechkin the puck: he’s assisted on over 40% of Alex’s 475 career goals. But Backstrom must learn when he needs to shoot the puck and when he needs to pass. It’s a very fine line because if he shot the puck more, Backstrom would likely contend for the Art Ross Trophy on an annual basis. To put that in perspective, not a single player reached the 100-point mark in 2014-15. Dallas’ Jamie Benn won the Art Ross with 87 points. If Backstrom would have scored exactly 30 goals, he would’ve won the Art Ross by three points.
While it may be fair to say the Caps’ best all-around player may never be a 30-goal scorer again, Capitals fans can only hope he does. Backstrom, in order to make the NHL pay attention, must elevate his goal totals. If he can do that, the Caps could boast a player who has the potential to challenge Sidney Crosby for the title “best player in the league”.
By Michael Fleetwood