There’s no question who the best goal-scorer on the Caps roster is. Even at 32 years old, Alex Ovechkin remains a top-scoring threat in the league. But, if you were to ask who the best all-around offensive player on the team is, you could make a pretty convincing argument for Nicklas Backstrom.
And that’s what makes his current slump so concerning.
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Backstrom is in the midst of the longest slump of his career, seven games without a point. That slump also is affecting T.J. Oshie who plays on Backstrom’s right wing. Oshie has only two points in eight games and has not scored a goal since Oct. 20.
“I realize that I've got to be better and I've got to create more chances, produce and be one of the leading guy on the team,” Backstrom said Thursday after practice. “Just got to find a way.”
But if you ask Barry Trotz, he does not seem all that concerned. Why not? Is he just putting on a good face for the media?
No. Trotz is not concerned because while Backstrom is not lighting it up offensively, he is excelling in the one aspect that has become his top priority: defense.
“Backy has done a really good job,” Trotz said Thursday. “I know there's a lot been said about not scoring or whatever, to me it's about winning and he's had all the tough matchups while still creating good offense, hasn't got the numbers.”
Trotz went on to say that he didn’t judge Backstrom’s game based on goals and assists.
Backstrom is one of the top shut-down centers in the NHL. With less depth defensively this season for the Caps as well as all the injury to Matt Niskanen, defense has become priority No. 1 for Backstrom and in that, he has been exceptional.
Here are just a few examples of the impact Backstrom has had against top offensive players. Against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Backstrom played the most against Zach Hyman, William Nylander and Auston Matthews. Those three contributed only one combined goal and it was an empty-netter. Against the Edmonton Oilers, Backstrom matched up against Patrick Maroon, Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid. Those three combined for only three points, as Draisaitl and McDavid assisted on a Maroon goal in the first period. They were held scoreless the rest of the game. Against the New York Islanders, Josh Bailey, John Tavares and Anders Lee combined for seven points, but only three of those points came at even strength.
With defense being a primary focus for Backstrom, one of the reasons his offensive production is down is because of the way he is being utilized. Currently, Backstrom is on pace for the lowest percentage of offensive zone faceoffs of his career with 44.26-percent.
Trotz was asked about the number of defensive zone draws for Backstrom and he said, “People try to avoid certain matchups so sometimes you start him there just to keep the other group off. That's the cat and mouse game that you have to play.”
But as good as Backstrom is defensively, he is still an important piece of the offense. Whether the Caps can be successful without him producing consistently is a fair question to ask.
In Backstrom’s mind, shutting down a team’s top playmakers isn’t good enough. He has to outscore them to truly be effective.
He said of playing against a team’s top line, “That's priority No. 1, but if it's 0-0 we're still kind of mad as a line. We want to win that match. It would be nice if we could score against them.”
That begs the question of whether we will soon see Backstrom reunited with Ovechkin. The two have always been a dominant pair in the past, but Trotz is reluctant to make that change. Given the different roles of both players this season, it would be hard to put them back on the same line.
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When asked about it, Trotz admitted that he had thought about making the move, but said the team was “Just not ready for it. I think you've got to trust the process.”And when that process involves Backstrom, you can bet Trotz will have plenty of patience.
“I don't have to tell you what I think of Nicklas Backstrom, one of the best two-way centermen in the National Hockey League and he should be a Selke candidate every year and I've said that. Right now, he's had tough matchups. … Trust me, if there's one player I don't have to worry a whole heck of a lot about, it's Nick Backstrom.”