Nicklas Backstrom has suited up for just seven of the Washington Capitals 40 games played so far this season due to his recovery and rehabilitation of a beleaguered hip. The battered Capitals lineup has greatly missed Backstrom while he has been out of the lineup, especially while other regular centers Nic Dowd and Lars Eller were also missing time due to minor injuries or COVID-19 protocol. But with Backstrom back in the lineup, the Capitals are 4-2-1.
In this post I’ll take a look at Backstrom’s performance so far this year, and how that stacks up to his season-long performances throughout his career. If you’re interested in learning more about the statistical terms used in this post, please visit our NHL Analytics glossary. Statistics used in this post are courtesy of Natural Stat Trick, Evolving-Hockey, and Hockey-Reference.
Possession and Scoring Chance Generation
First, let’s take a look at Backstrom’s possession and scoring-chance generation metrics in terms of percentages:
A caveat here: these percentages are bound to regress to his career averages. The real theme to glean from these percentages is that Backstrom returned to play, after missing all that time, at a near-elite level in terms of shot generation, shot suppression, scoring chance generation, and high-danger chance generation.
Backstrom’s Corsi For (CF%) and Fenwick For (FF%) percentages are tracking at career highs as well. While we can expect to see these metrics to regress a bit, simply due to sample size considerations and the fact that we have fifteen seasons of data to reference for Backstrom’s performance, it isn’t outside the realm of possibility that Backstrom can post among his career bests in these metrics.
One area where we can clearly see that progression is on the horizon is in high-danger goals for (HDGF%). While the Capitals generate more high-danger chances for than they allow while Backstrom is on the ice, the Capitals have yet to convert a high-danger chance into a goal. Backstrom’s career HDGF% during five-on-five play is 48.94%, so we can rationally expect to see this increase to numbers closer to his career average.
Here’s Backstrom’s possession and scoring chance generation figures over a rate of sixty minutes during five-on-five play:
Based on career performances, Backstrom’s CF/60 is tracking a few points above his career average of 60.75. Overall, his CF/60 performance is tracking very closely to his performance during the 2019-20 season.
The most interesting stat to call out here is that Backstrom’s CA/60 is far and away a career-best. His career average in CA/60 is 53.08. Long story short, the Capitals are buttoned up defensively when Backstrom is on the ice.
The piece that sticks out here is that although the key metrics for shot attempts and scoring chances are glowing when Backstrom is on the ice, the Caps are also giving up 2.72 GA/60 compared to 2.04 GF/60. The area to reference on the chart above is the xGF/60 of 2.76 and the xGA/60 of 1.93.
Realistically, the Capitals are scoring goals at a worse than expected rate, while also allowing goals at a worse than expected rate. What’s the difference here? It’s both shooting and save percentage.
The Capitals shooting percentage when Backstrom is on the ice this season is 5.88%. The next lowest during Backstrom’s career is 7.18% way back in the 2013-14 season. Additionally, the save percentage while Backstrom is on the ice is 84%. This is by far the lowest in Backstrom’s entire career. In fact, the save percentages for goaltenders while Backstrom has been on the ice during five-on-five play has never finished below 90% for a given season. We can likely expect this number to return to form with a larger sample size.
Regularized Adjusted Plus-Minus (RAPM)
Let’s take a look at Backstrom’s RAPM chart, courtesy of Evolving-Hockey:The chart above supports a lot of what I detailed in the previous section of this post. The Capitals are struggling at scoring goals while Backstrom is on the ice, pulling his GF/60 below the replacement threshold. It would be surprising if that stayed in that location all season.
Outside of that, Backstrom is tracking above replacement levels in each area outside of GF/60, which is solid for his small sample of play so far this season. Effectively, we’ll just want to keep an eye on how Backstrom’s performance fares throughout the remainder of the season.
In terms of the right side of the RAPM chart, it’s hard to put a lot of stock into Backstrom’s performance on the power play so far. He’s only played 26:40 of ice time on the power play, and on top of that, the Capitals’ power play has been stale and ineffective all season, especially in Backstrom’s absence. With more regular players in the lineup, especially those with more power play experience, hopefully we can see an increase in effectiveness on the power play.
Although the sample size for Backstrom’s body of work so far this season is relatively small at only seven games, we’re seeing a few very positive trends. The largest takeaways are that the Capitals are generating considerably more shot attempts and shots on goal than they are allowing when Backstrom is on the ice.
On top of that, the negative trends related to Backstrom’s performance are likely not a result of Backstrom’s play alone, but a combination of lower than expected shooting percentages, as well as extremely low save percentages while Backstrom is on the ice.
By Justin Trudel