Evaluating Nicklas Backstrom’s Performance So Far This Season

Nicklas Backstrom is likely going to finish his career with the Washington Capitals as the second best player in franchise history behind longtime teammate Alex Ovechkin. However, over the past few seasons, Backstrom has really struggled through a hip injury that has hindered his ability to play without pain.

After last season’s first round playoff exit against the Florida Panthers, Backstrom opted to have hip resurfacing surgery. This was obviously not a light decision, considering there’s only been a handful of NHL players to have this surgery prior to Backstrom, and none of them had much game action after the surgery.

Backstrom has played in 21 games this season, which is a large enough sample size for us to break down his play and evaluate his performance. The statistics used in this post are courtesy of Natural Stat Trick, Evolving Hockey, HockeyViz, and Hockey Reference. If you’d like to learn more about the statistical terms used in this post, please check out our NHL Analytics Glossary.

Five-on-five possession and scoring chance generation

First up, let’s take a look at how Backstrom has performed in the key metrics that help us evaluate on-ice performance:

Overall, Backstrom is hovering around the 50% watermark for nearly all of the key metrics. This means that roughly half of the shot attempts, scoring chances, and high-danger scoring chances are generated by the Caps while Backstrom is on the ice. The downside of this fact is the opposition is also getting roughly the same amount going the other way.

The glaring issue here presents itself in the Caps’ goals for percentage (GF%) when compared to expected goals for percentage (xGF%) while Backstrom is on the ice. The same issue is present when comparing high-danger chance percentage (HDCF%) compared to high-danger goals for percentage (HDGF%) while Backstrom is on the ice.

This is becoming an observable trend for the Caps this season, and here’s a key element of those stark differences between GF% vs xGF%, as well as HDCF% vs HDGF%:

When looking at the Caps’ shooting percentage (S%) when Backstrom is on the ice over his career, you can see this season, the Caps are shooting at a paltry 3.74%. To put this into perspective, the Minnesota Wild have the worst five-on-five shooting percentage in the league this season at 7.02%, with the Seattle Kraken leading the way with 10.33%. The Caps have scored just four goals while Backstrom has been on the ice during five-on-five play with 107 shots on goal. That’s certainly less than ideal.

I mentioned that this stark drop off in GF% vs xGF% has become a glaring trend for the Capitals this season. In another post, I wrote about how the Capitals’ lack of finishing down the lineup has likely been the main driver to the Caps’ lack of success this season. This issue is quite apparent in Backstrom’s five-on-five production, and has had a reasonable impact on his performance this season.

Backstrom has been on the ice for four goals during five-on-five play, and he has assists on all of them. It sure seems like the skill set that’s made him a franchise cornerstone for the past 16 seasons is still there. The issue comes down to a decline in athleticism you see from aging veterans who’ve played over a thousand games in the league.

Another way to evaluate a player’s performance is by observing their Rate Adjusted Plus-Minus (RAPM). This compares a player’s performance against what’s considered a “replacement level” player. Here’s Backstrom’s RAPM chart, courtesy of Evolving Hockey:

One thing stands out above, and it’s that when Backstrom is on the ice, the Caps aren’t generating an excess of goals or high-quality scoring chances, as indicated in GF/60 and xGF/60 (and CF/60 to an extent). What Backstrom does exceed in at this point in his career is limiting the opposition’s quality scoring chances and shot attempts.

Backstrom’s power play performance doesn’t look good, but in the context of the entire team, it makes a bit of sense. Here’s the Caps’ team RAPM chart:

Under special teams, you can see that the Capitals have negative value on the power play as a whole this season. It’s pretty clear that the Caps’ power play has gotten quite a bit stale, especially since they’ve been using effectively the same base power play scheme for nearly a decade. At this point, you have to expect most teams have adjusted to the Caps’ in-zone strategy on the power play.

Overall, Backstrom’s play hasn’t been great this season. To me, that’s kind of to be expected for a 35-year-old center coming off of a surgery that has basically no precedence in the NHL. To that effect, here’s Backstrom’s isolated impact this season, courtesy of HockeyViz:This basically hones in on the points we made above. The Caps aren’t really effective, offensively when Backstrom is on the ice so far this season, but they’ve controlled the pace of play enough where the Caps aren’t awful on both ends of the ice.

At the end of the day, Backstrom’s deployment resulting in -12% performance in xGF/60 and -3% in xGA/60 isn’t where we’d want a player making $9.2M a year to be. The hope is, with smarter deployments and better help offensively next season, the center should hopefully at least make his way back to positive differentials here. The fact is, Backstrom will be 36 next November, and Father Time is undefeated.

Player value using Goals Above Replacement (GAR) and Expected Goals Above Replacement (xGAR)

GAR is a metric that allows us to compare a player’s value production over the course of the season against a replacement level player (which is a player with a value of zero). xGAR is effectively the same, but looks at the expected value the player would bring based on performance.

Let’s dive into Backstrom’s GAR performance this season stacked up against the rest of his career:

The overall downward trend is to be expected for a player late in his career. The issue for Backstrom this season is that he’s dropped into the negatives for the first time in his career for GAR.

Interestingly enough, this season, his GAR is -3.5, but his xGAR is -0.1. The impact of the lack of goal scoring when Backstrom is on the ice is indicative here, as that drives player value in total offensive GAR.

For more pinpointed values in GAR this season, here’s Backstrom’s player card, via Evolving Hockey:

Overall, Backstrom’s even strength offensive GAR (oGAR) is the main driver of his negative GAR value this season. In total, his overall oGAR is driving his value down this season. He’s actually relatively decent defensively, as mentioned earlier, the issue comes down to finishing and offensive chance generation. There’s certainly a question of the talent on the roster currently, which sparked the retool at the trade deadline by General Manager Brian MacLellan. MacLellan needs to find quality linemates for Backstrom that can make up for the weaknesses in his game this late in his career.

Wrapping up

On one hand, this isn’t exactly what the Capitals would want to see from a core piece of this team that makes $9.2M against the salary cap for the next two seasons following this year. On the other hand, it’s hard to expect a ton from a 35-year-old thousand NHL game veteran to immediately bounce back from a surgery with practically no precedence at the NHL level.

Time will really tell if Backstrom can stabilize his performance and get back to being a positive value GAR performer. The skill set is still there for Backstrom, but the issue becomes more of a problem to solve in constructing the roster this off-season. Putting the right pieces around Backstrom is going to be important, as well as managing his deployments and usage. At this point in his career, he’s likely best suited for a third line center and power play specialist role.

‘By Justin Trudel

About Justin Trudel

Justin is a lifelong Caps fan, with some of his first memories of the sport watching the team in the USAir Arena and the 1998 Stanley Cup appearance. Now a resident of St. Augustine, FL, Justin watches the Caps from afar. Justin graduated with a Bachelor's of Science in Political Science from Towson University, and a Master's of Science in Applied Information Technology from Towson University. Justin is currently a product manager. Justin enjoys geeking out over advanced analytics, roster construction, and cap management.
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34 Responses to Evaluating Nicklas Backstrom’s Performance So Far This Season

  1. Greg says:

    This is what I have been seeing as well. The question is how does BMAC surround him with these quality offensive players if Nick is getting $9 M a year.

    • My guess is through two routes: using some of the trade assets that the Caps acquired by selling assets at the trade deadline and trying to get some shrewd signings in free agency like he accomplished with Strome and Milano.

      The biggest hope is that the league can find a way to increase the salary cap ceiling considerably after it being pretty stagnant since the pandemic hit. The biggest issue there is the decline of the regional sports network model, so it might be a marginal at best increase to the cap ceiling.

      • novafyre says:

        I feel that the demise of the RSNs (and lukewarm numbers at ESPN and TNT) is going to result in no cap increase (or virtually no cap increase) and increased arena/uniform advertising.

        • Jon Sorensen says:

          I didn’t think of that. You might be right.

          • novafyre says:

            As I said in an earlier post, my sports newsletters are warning about viewing difficulties, but my financial newsletters are all about negative effects on NBA, MLB, and NHL bottom lines. Especially the NHL. I only know what I read, but what I’m reading isn’t good.

        • KimRB says:

          I was just ranting here about dot Com arena names, and on another site about the watered down NHL. And I forgot all about jersey advertising. Gee, I get the privilege of paying $250 to be a walking billboard for online gambling, credit cards, fast food restaurants and whatever else they’ll sell space too. It’s that, or continue to wear my Young Guns Era Mike Green 52 red model.

          I still fondly remember the Capital Center, before naming rights, and when it had no ads on the boards. I paid $28 each for playoff tickets one year, and thought that was a lot (sigh)

          • novafyre says:

            Agreed. And it’s not getting any better. I dropped AHLtv because I couldn’t afford to watch the Caps, Bolts, Bears, and Stingrays. One had to give.

            I’d stick to the Mike Green jersey. Good player, good era.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Surrounding him with quality players will help, but his skating has become perhaps the slowest in the league. That’s tough to overcome.

    • A part of me hopes that he’ll get a bit of his speed back after more time passes after the surgery, although Backstrom has never really been the fleetest of foot. His strength is slowing the game down so he can make the right play. Faster linemates will certainly pad his slow skating speed though.

    • jonicap says:

      Did you give Eller the same ‘grace’? He just needed to surround himself with better players. Well, the players Backy was playing with were doing a better job with other centers. It wasn’t a talent issue.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Give him a whole offseason where he is focused on training and not rehab. I think he will look better.

    • Agreed. This surgery is no joke. Most of the guys who’ve gotten it in the past only played a handful of games after recovering, and ended up hanging up the skates.

    • Mike OxBig says:

      Hopefully, I know it took Andy Murray some time to recover and then train his way back to being competitive at tennis.

  4. GRin430 says:

    Backstrom has always been a pass-first, pass-second and pass-third player, which means he needs finishers on his wings for his GF% to be acceptable. Who have his line-mates been since he got back, and how well have those wings scored with other Cs?

    I don’t have that data handy, so Justin, if you have it, that might be revealing.

    It might also be interesting to see what has changed over the 21 games… Has his play been improving, stayed relatively the same, gotten worse? Remember that he had no summer workouts and no training camp, no AHL stint to work his way back into NHL play; after major surgery then recovery, he had some individual work, a few practices, then right into mid-season games (after a bout with Covid, if I recall). One would hope that his stats have been improving as he has worked into game-shape, but if they have gotten worse, that would be troubling.

    His linemates have changed around some, have any combos been better than others?

    Backstrom has always relied on his “vision” (which is more about how/how quickly his brain processes what he sees and then anticipates what comes next than his actual eyesight) and his hands for success, not his skating speed. I don’t see why his vision/passing skills would deteriorate based on age alone. His timing certainly would deteriorate some by lack of game action (he’s only played 68 games the past 2 seasons combined), but there have been flashes of the old Backstrom even in the limited time he’s been back — reading the play, anticipating when/where the seam will open, saucer-passing the puck to the wide-open line-mate in prime scoring territory.

    It will be interesting to see how he plays the rest of this year and the beginning of next year after he has a regular off-season (we hope) and then training camp, etc. If he doesn’t improve, then I would agree that he’s likely done as an elite player. But I’m not ready to give up on him based on the limited information we have right now.

    • novafyre says:

      If he is still thinking about his hips then his ‘vision’ would be hampered because his hips would be a distraction. He wouldn’t be putting all his brain to work on hockey. But we won’t know just what percentage back he is, how successful the surgery was in terms of on ice performance until after the season is over.

    • The line combination he’s spent the most time with this season is with Tom Wilson and Sonny Milano. They have really solid possession metrics together, but they’ve only scored one goal and have allowed four against.

      It’s probably pretty tough for two guys who have missed extensive time this season to be skating on the same line together.

      • GRin430 says:

        Wilson has started to score now, but I believe that coincided with a move to the top line? Wilson also looked pretty bad his first few games, from a mobility and hands perspective, but has since really rounded into form since coming back from blocking that shot. Of course being on the other wing from Ovechkin creates space for Wilson, and vice-versa, as proven by years of success as linemates.

        I know Smith has been on Backstrom’s wing for some portion of the 2 games Smith’s played with the Caps. Maybe the two old geezers will rejuvenate each other…

  5. horn73 says:

    I think he’ll be the 3rd center next year and see how it goes. If he struggles, Caps have to do something with is contract for the last year and promote CMM at some point next year.

    Here is how I see next year playing out.

    I still think GM should shed Mantha this offseason (freeing up 5+m) and freeing up another 2-3m would not be difficult at all allowing the Caps to sign whomever GM thinks is top wing that would fit our roster…

    1st line next year perhaps – Kuzy, Ovi, Wilson
    line 2 – Strome, Oshi and FA
    line 3 – Backy, Milano, ??
    4th line centered by Dowd and then Beck maybe, Protas maybe

    last spot on 3rd and 2 spots on 4th have a ton of candidates.

    —-3rd line, maybe top candidates are Nick Aube-Kubel, Snively, Protas, Frank, CMM
    —-4th line, maybe top candidates for 2 spots are NAK, Malenstym, Protas

    I think Lapierre definitely needs another year in Hershey, probably Frank too and CMM too and bring those last 2 up first if/when injuries hit next year.

    One man’s opinion (obviously)…

    • Chris C says:

      Now if we could get Connor to score or get more points more often he could be a threat to make the lineup regularly. Lets rush the new Russian phenom to the big leagues and see if he thrives.

  6. hockeydruid says:

    The hip surgery is very similar to surgery that baseball players have called “Tommy John” surgery in that the full recovery takes about 18 months. Backy is not even a year removed from the surgery. On the other hand in baseball the pitcher having this surgery are often in their 20’s not 35 like Backy. They older you get the longer and harder rehab and full recovery is. Backy is to be commended for coming back so soon. Although never being a speedster he does appear not to have another gear anymore. Yes IF he is to play next year the best place for him would be the 3rd line and yes he always has been a pass first type of player but maybe a few changes have to happen like maybe he shoots more to help the team especially on the PP. As far as being an elite player he is not one anymore the real question is can he be a season long asset to this team next season and if he can’t will he agree to retire. What happens if in camp next season a player for example Protas or CM or even Lapierre come in and really outdo Backy. Will management ask him to retire or will he go on his own and I’m not sure can a player with a NMC be cut? It is really sad to see once elite players hang around well after their prime.

    • There’s too much money on the table for Backstrom to decide to retire. The likely scenario if he decides he can’t play anymore would be to just to go on the LTIR until his contract ends. This does create cap space, but it also hampers the team a bit because as long as a player is on LTIR, they cannot accrue cap space for the trade deadline.

      You can buy out players with NMC, but that’s going to be expensive. You’d end up saving $3,833,333 against the cap year one of that buyout, but it’d only save you $833,333 against the cap next season (so he’d have a cap hit of $8,366,667). I’d personally rather have Backstrom the next couple seasons and hope he regains some of his form.

      • KimRB says:

        OK let’s run with this scenario. Let’s say Backy is still mostly ineffective next year. Let’s say he “decides” he isn’t effective anymore, but still wants the money he’s owed. So he “decides”, or the team decides for him, to go on LTIR for the rest of the contract. My question is, does the NHL allow them to get away with this? Will the league step in and say “Whoa hoss, you can still play hockey, even if you’re not as good at it as you used to be. Get back on the ice, and honor your contract”. Wouldn’t it be doctors, team employed, or otherwise, who’d decide whether Backy is eligible to go back on LTIR for the duration?

        • I believe doctors would have to deem Backstrom unable to play any longer for him to enter that LTIRetired state. If he decides that he just can’t play any more but there isn’t anything medically wrong with him, he just has to retire. As you’ve said on another comment, he’s not going to just miss out on the millions of dollars still owed to him on his contract.

          Realistically, the Caps are gonna just have to deal with it for the next two seasons, unless something drastic happens.

    • KimRB says:

      If you had a contract with a company, and were owed millions of dollars, and had a young family, and the company came to you and said “you can’t do your job anymore, please retire”, would you do it? If you were owed only thousands of dollars, would you do it? Somehow I doubt it.

      • James says:

        You know, I understand your point. But add this to your scenario: what if your company had recruited you at a very young age and loved you and paid you $94M over the past 15 years and you and your company had achieved the pinnacle of success. I’m imagining (just imagining) that someone of Nick’s integrity might (just might) say to himself – I’ve had a great career and am a rich man. I’m not worth what my contract calls for- I have enough money – let my company off the hook. And by “company” I mean, of course not just the Washington Capitals, but all of its fans.

        • novafyre says:

          Some NFL players have renegotiated their contracts lower but I don’t think NHL allows that. Friends and I once had a debate — if you were a third string QB on a Super Bowl winning team and never took a single snap, would you be happy? Would the ring be worth it knowing that you had not contributed? Similar question to Backstrom. He said once before that if he could not play to his expectations, he would not continue.

        • KimRB says:

          I understand you, but the thing is, I doubt if Nick is that rich, certainly not as wealthy as Ovi. He was underpaid for aot of years, making about $6M, when Ovi was making $9.5. Ovi had greater name recognition, and probably more endorsements, and oh yeah, Ovi’s wife is independently wealthy. If I’m Nick I’d play the two years out, collect my paychecks, and make sure that my kids, and my future grandchildren were set for their lives. Then me and the missus can retire with a condo in Florida, a house in Sweden, and no worries

          • franky619 says:

            Underpaid? Are you kidding me. At 6.7 millions he was very well paid considering the only skill where he could be considered elite was his passing abilities. Elite player don’t fall that hard all the sudden look at Kopitar, Crosby, Bergeron, Giroux all 35 plus and still productive centers. The difference is that they make other players better, they don’t need to be carried by their linemates. Don’t bring up his injury as an excuse since it was never his strength to begin with. He is exactly the same player he was 10 years ago except that he’s not dragging Ovy down anymore, Other wingers are wasted with him.

  7. franky619 says:

    Thanks for the article Justin, great job. Pretty much reflects what is seen on the ice. Althought he does’nt look nearly as reliable defensively as the stats make him look. He’s very sheltered, Laviolette does’nt use him much for defensive zone starts, does’nt seem to trust him, he mostly get offensive zone starts.

  8. jonicap says:

    I’ve mentioned it before. Trade Backy, and keep Eller. Even if it means keeping part of his salary. I can’t give Backy a good reason for his lack of performance. Some will cry injury recovery but that happened prior to his playing. He’s pain free. If he still has not fully recovered than why in the world is he playing? I have to make the practical assumption that he’s recovered. Well, I can go so far as to say he’s the reason why we underperformed as a team since he’s been back. We had other centers playing better.

    • jonicap says:

      I heard so many advocate for McM to stay with team and sit or get rid of Eller, but when Backy took his place basically, I’ve not hear one comment from anyone else (if you have, pls correct me) that Backy needs to sit. Backy is taking McM’s spot too. And other prospects (more importantly, Protas). I didn’t think McM should be on the team because of his performance, not because of his age. I think Backy shouldn’t be on the team because of his performance, not because of his age.

  9. Rob Cherry says:

    For me his loss of mobility and speed have been apparent over the last few seasons. He really seems to be a step late in a lot of situations. I hate that it’s this way but it really looks to be the case.
    I’ve been thinking that the Coaching staff needs to reinvent his role somewhat. I feel like he could play a role much like Dale Hunter did toward the end of his career. I feel like if he was tasked with being “the” shutdown center on the 4th line with two young grinders he could excel and produce some timely offense. He could still be used on special teams. I just feel like he can’t push every inch of ice looking to score and still be good defensively with his skating currently. I love him but age forces changes.

  10. kbrews says:

    On top of his age, hip resurfacing takes one full year to fully recover. Granted a pro athlete with full time access to training staff might accelerate that, he still is less than 9 months since his surgery. Anything the Caps get from him in this NHL season is gravy.

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