Often lost in the radiant aura of Alex Ovechkin are the equally mesmerizing, unfortunately under-admired talents of No. 8’s linemate in Washington, Nicklas Backstrom.
It’s easy to see why that happens; Ovechkin and Alex Semin are expected to do the bulk of the scoring for Backstrom’s team — and rare is the pair of players who fill that role with as much panache as does Washington’s Russian duo.
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However, if you appreciate the art of the assist, you’ve got to go ga-ga for the things Backstrom already has done in just two NHL seasons — and all before he turns 22 this November.
“He does things that are very subtle, but that not very many people can do,” Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said. “As a passer, I’d put him in the same category as anyone you’d put in with the best passers in the NHL today.
“He just knows the game, he takes direction very well, and he comes to play. I can use him killing penalties or in any situation, and know he’ll get the job done. The only thing I have to worry about is playing him too much.”
Caps assistant coach Dean Evason said: “A lot of people are watching Ovie on the ice and not Nicky. But when Ovie scores, you see the replay and see how Ovie got the puck on his tape in a perfect shooting situation and you understand how good Nick is.”
Backstrom, the fourth overall pick in the 2006 draft, clearly excels at scoring setups. He led the Capitals with 55 assists in his rookie season of 2007-08 and boosted that total last year to 66 helpers, which was tied for third-most in the league.
Still, the native of Gavle, Sweden, said he can become a more proficient goal scorer as well.
“Every game you want to help the team to score, and for myself, I want to score some goals and get better at it every season,” said Backstrom, who had 14 goals in his rookie campaign. “It’s true I feel good if I help my teammates get goals. But most of all I want the team to succeed.”
Evason also said the youngster’s scoring abilities haven’t yet fully blossomed.
“Everyone knows about Nicky’s playmaking skills, but we think he can score, too,” said Evason of Backstrom, who didn’t score in Washington’s first 14 games last season, yet finished the year with 22 goals. “His first instinct is to pass, but he has a tremendous shot and he’s scored some tremendous goals for us.
“I think he’s right — he will balance his scoring. He probably won’t ever have more goals than assists, but there’s no question he can score on a consistent basis.”
Backstrom’s sizzling chemistry with Ovechkin, as pure a goal scorer as there is today, also doesn’t help the Swede’s odds at winning a Rocket Richard Trophy. But Backstrom doesn’t mind taking a back seat to the reigning two-time Hart Trophy winner — especially when it comes to the personal publicity department.
“I feel good,” Backstrom said. “Ovie gets the attention, and I just get to play hockey and focus.”
Boudreau said: “When you’re on a team that has Alex Ovechkin, you’re not going to get the print you deserve. That’s not bad or good, but Nicky shies away from it anyway.
“He’s a really quiet guy. He’s social and gets along with everybody, but he just works really hard in practice, he goes about his business day after day and his work ethic is excellent. I can’t say enough good things about him.”
Backstrom’s rookie contract expires at the end of this season, making him one of next summer’s most attractive restricted free agents … if the Capitals allow him to get to that point without a long-term extension. (Note: Nine out of 10 hockey writers recommend you not hold your breath waiting for that to take place.)
If they did, they’d risk breaking up what may be the best setup-finish partnership the NHL will see over the next decade.
“I have to believe Ovie appreciates what Nick does for his game,” Boudreau said. “The first year, Ovie would have to yell for passes, but now it seems like they just know each other so well, he hardly has to say anything out there.
“They have a real good feel for one another.”
Although Backstrom doesn’t ache to have his ego stroked, he sounds happiest when discussing the change in Washington’s civic status since he and his Capitals co-stars have turned the team and town around.
“We’re going from a non-hockey town to a hockey town,” Backstrom said. “It’s so different from when I started here, but it’s great for the team and great for Washington.”
This column also appeared in the Oct. 26 edition of The Hockey News magazine.
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.
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