Assessing Nicklas Backstrom’s Line Combinations For The 2022-23 Season: What Worked (And What Didn’t Work)

Last week we continued our analysis of the performance of the Washington Capitals forward group for the 2022-23 season by taking a closer look at the performance of each and every line combination as they relate to each individual forward. The refined look attempts to glean additional insight into the team’s specific needs for the upcoming season.

We began the deeper dive on Capitals forwards with captain Alex Ovechkin’s line combinations. On Saturday we reviewed each and every line combination deployed with Evgeny Kuznetsov and yesterday we took a look at the performance of each and every line combination deployed with T.J. Oshie. Today we review each and every line combination deployed with Nicklas Backstrom last season.

The following graph plots all forward line combinations deployed with Nicklas Backstrom for the 2022-23 season at five-on-five (sans lines that included Marcus Johansson, Lars Eller and Garnet Hathaway).

The graph includes the total time each line was on the ice (TOI), the percentage of offensive zone faceoffs each line was on the ice for (OZFO%), the expected goals differential (xGF – xGA) and the expected goals for percentage (xGF%) deployed at five-on-five. [Click to enlarge].

[The statistics used in this post are courtesy of Natural Stat Trick and the NoVa Caps Advanced Analytics Model (NCAAM). If you’d like to learn more about the statistical terms used in this post, please check out our NHL Analytics Glossary]

Note: The thin horizontal red line above bifurcates the positive and negative expected goals for percentages for all of the line combinations.


Backstrom finished the season with a very pedestrian expected goals for percentage of 50.30% at five-on-five. It should be noted that he averaged just over 50% offensive zone faceoffs (a big reduction for Backstrom), indicating the team was trusting (or testing) him in the defensive zone more than usual. The number is also indicative of a bottom six forward.

The Milano-Backstrom-Wilson line was Backstrom’s best line as far as possession metrics are concerned. The trio was deployed for 49.05 of time on ice at five-on-five, recording and expected goals for percentage of 68.75%.

The Smith-Backstrom-Mantha line combination also produced positive results and was the second-most common line deployments for Backstrom.

It should be added that the Protas-Backstrom-Oshie pairing produced prositve results as well, but was deployed for just 27.32 of five-on-five ice time.


As we noted in our initial end-of-season performance review for Backstrom, while it was great for the Capitals and fans too see Backstrom back on the ice, it wasn’t the same Backstrom we’ve become accustomed to seeing in red, white, and blue since the 2007-08 season.

Other than the lines above, not much else worked for Backstrom, as you can glean from the graph above. Former head coach Peter Laviolette gave extended time to the Sheary-Backstrom-Smith line combination, but it just didn’t work, posting and expected goals for percentage of 30.05%

Backstrom was productive while playing in the bottom six. The rub is his pay check.


This past summer, Nicklas Backstrom decided to take on an intensive and potentially career-impacting hip resurfacing surgery. By all accounts the surgery went well, as he  eventually out-performed the odds of returning to the ice during the 2022-23 season. He ended up suiting up for the Capitals in 39 games.

In his breakdown day interview, Backstrom mentioned that he was optimistic about his future performance, since he’ll be able to get a full training session in this off-season. General Manager Brian MacLellan didn’t share in his optimism, effectively saying that he doesn’t know how much better Backstrom gets with the off-season training and that Backstrom will have to make a decision on his career prior to training camp.

Next we will take a look at the performance of Anthony Mantha’s lines. We will ultimately construct the optimal line combinations for the Capitals at the end of this evaluation.

By Jon Sorensen

About Jon Sorensen

Jon has been a Caps fan since day one, attending his first game at the Capital Centre in 1974. His interest in the Caps has grown over the decades and included time as a season ticket holder. He has been a journalist covering the team for 10+ years, primarily focusing on analysis, analytics and prospect development.
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15 Responses to Assessing Nicklas Backstrom’s Line Combinations For The 2022-23 Season: What Worked (And What Didn’t Work)

  1. Anonymous says:

    I may be in the minority but I think he deserves a little more than 39 games to prove his capabilities

  2. Anonymous says:

    9.2 is a deal breaker for me. We knew that contract would eventually turn bad, just probably not so quickly.

    • GRin430 says:

      Based on these numbers vs. Kuznetsov’s, I’d take Backstrom at $9.2M ahead of Kuznetsov at $7.8M… But luckily, I don’t have a say in what GMBM does, nor will I get the blame.

    • Diane Doyle says:

      When he signed the 5 year deal, I got the uncomfortable reminder of the Michael Nylander 4 year deal from yesteryear. Nylander was 34 years old at the beginning of that deal — about 2 years older than Backstrom was at the start of his current deal. Everyone was pleased as punch when Caps signed Nylander. But he got injured halfway through his first season with the Caps, had rotator cuff surgery and was out for the rest of the year. Wasn’t quite the same player after that. After year 2 of his contract, people couldn’t wait to be rid of him and he was lent to minor league teams (outside the Caps org) and foreign teams for the last two years of his deal. (I don’t know what they did about schooling for his 5 or 6 kids)

  3. J says:

    He definitely deserves to start next season as a Capital to prove he’s still a top 6 forward

    • Anonymous says:

      I think so as well. Who gets judged on 39 games?

    • franky619 says:

      If he starts the season they’ll have miss the chance to sign free agent and upgrade the team with the money they could have saved by getting rid of him. He sank the team this season, they were 3rd in the metro and 6th in the east before he came back. The 39 games he played they were what 30th? 31st in the league. Maclellan needs to do what’s best for the team, and that’s finding a way to get him off the team.

  4. Prevent Defense says:

    “We’re all adults here” kind of the GM Mac approach to Backstrom return

    He will report to camp and get a full evaluation. He will get barbecued by the GM if he plays poorly. Not too sure what will happen if he plays well!

    • James says:

      That is EXACTLY right! But he has to prove he can be better than a middle of the pack 3C. This talk of him over Kutzy, IMO, is crazy. Kutzy has the skill to be a top 10 player in the NHL. Backy isn’t in the top 120. I love him, but it’s true.

  5. andrew777dc says:

    If my eyesight is not failing me, glancing over the charts, these numbers are on average better than Osh’s, not to mention Kuzy’s. Didn’t fall through that much on xGF-xGA. Not too shabby for someone just off surgery for a life-altering injury/condition. Even if that means bottom-6 forward, or reduced minutes, PP specialist. The Caps do need some back-end security, something most other core forwards cannot be expected to provide anymore. The question is the pay check, indeed. I think he deserves a chance to at least start (not getting placed on LTIR or forced to retire), given he claims to be pain-free (of course, he will still be evaluated in due course), and given how hard he’s worked to come back. But if things don’t quite work out after that, there has to be a plan B in place, that Backy himself has to sign up to ahead of the new season.

    • GRin430 says:

      That was exactly my thought — These numbers are better than I thought they’d be, and better than several other high-paid Caps. I’ll give Oshie a pass since he was playing with a bad back all year, but Backstrom’s chart looks significantly better than Kuznetsov’s, despite Kuznetsov being healthy all summer and all season, and Backstrom having no summer training and no training camp, coming in mid-season and often playing with guys he’d never played with before.

      Based on this data, Backstrom played okay. Based on my eyeball test, he was skating better than he had in years, which isn’t saying that much, but he never was a burner… His game is vision and hands, and with a full summer and camp of preparation, there’s hope that we could see something close to his play from a few years ago.

      In my non-expert view, I’d keep this past year’s Backstrom at $9.2M before I’d keep this year’s Kuznetsov at $7.8M. I’d also bet more on Backstrom being better next year than on Kuznetsov improving at this point (at least past the first few weeks of the season… his good moods rarely last long).

  6. Jon Sorensen says:

    Greetings folks! Just a quick note, if you haven’t done so already, please consider subscribing to NoVa Caps posts in the “subscribe” box located in the upper right corner. Thank you!

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