With the Capitals’ 2015-16 season now in the rearview mirror, we continue with our numerical player-by-player roster analysis.
No. 19 Nicklas Backstrom
Age: 28 (turns 29 on Nov. 23)
Penalty minutes: 36
Time on ice: 19:10
Playoff stats: 12 games, 2 goals, 9 assists, plus-3, 8 PIM, 20:02
Contract status: Four years remaining on 10-year, $67 million contract ($6.7 million cap hit, $7 million salary)
Following the Capitals’ fifth second-round playoff exit in nine years, Capitals alternate captain Nicklas Backstrom did something very few professional athletes are brave enough to do.
At the very end of his post-season interview with reporters, Backstrom was asked if there is anything he would like to say to Capitals fans who have waited 42 years for their team to win its first Stanley Cup.
“I love them,” Backstrom said. “I love Washington fans. They’re absolutely the best fans in the world. Even if we disappoint them, hopefully they have faith in us. I know we’re gonna do it. We’re gonna do it one day. I promise them.”
Once described as “the heartbeat of our team” by goaltender Braden Holtby, Backstrom was quietly one of the most consistently productive players for the Capitals this season, noteworthy because he underwent reconstructive hip surgery last summer.
During his nine-year NHL career in Washington, Backstrom has averaged .98 points per game in the regular season and .75 points per game in the playoffs.
This season he averaged .93 points and .92 points, respectively. He also hit the 20-goal mark for just the third time in his career and for the first time since 2010 when he set career highs with 33 goals and 101 points. Backstrom credited his decision to undergo offseason hip surgery and the dedication of the Capitals’ training staff to allow him to play in all but seven games this season (he missed the first three games of the season and four of the final five).
“I was feeling good all year,” he said. “Obviously, when you do a big surgery like that, you’re going to feel it a little bit. But it’s all about treatment and how you handle it. I feel like all the trainers have been doing a good job with that, helping me.”
Because of his consistency, and perhaps the campaigning of head coach Barry Trotz, Backstrom was voted into his first NHL All-Star Game. But that wasn’t enough to soothe the open wounds of another premature playoff exit.
“Really disappointing, to be honest with you,” Backstrom said when asked to evaluate his own play. “Honestly, I don’t care about anything else than going further in the playoffs. It’s disappointing. It doesn’t matter I went to Nashville. Yeah, it was fun, but I don’t really care about that right now.”
In the playoffs, Backstrom was quietly dominant, recording two goals and five assists in six games against the Flyers and no goals and four assists in six games against the Penguins – all while holding Philadelphia’s Claude Giroux to one assist (minus-2) in six games, and Sidney Crosby to two assists (minus-3) in six games.
“Every time you go against a player like (Crosby), I feel like you have to be good,” Backstrom said. “He’s a talented guy. I think if you look at it now, what did he have, two assists? If you look at it afterwards, you think when he has two assists, you feel like, ‘Yeah, we should’ve won that.’ But there was a lot of other guys on their team that really stepped up and had a big series.”
Guys like Nick Bonino (2 goals, 3 assists), Carl Hagelin (3 goals, 4 assists) and Phil Kessel (2 goals, 4 assists).
Backstrom has been through four head coaches and five No. 1 goalies in his nine seasons with the Caps but has failed to see the Capitals play in a conference final.
“Obviously, it’s getting old,” Backstrom said. “The same meetings every year.”
With four years remaining on a contract that continues to escalate in value – he’ll earn $7 million next season, $7.5 million in each of the following two seasons, and $8 million in 2019-20, Backstrom was asked if he’s ever wondered how long the Caps will remain patient with him and Alex Ovechkin in their quest to win a championship.
“Yeah, a little bit,” he said. “It’s out of our hands, I think. Even if we have long contracts, it’s up to the GM and the owners to evaluate everybody and how they want to go forward here, which players they want to have here and stuff like that. But, yeah, it absolutely crosses your mind. But at the same time, you’re hockey players. We want to move forward, and we want to succeed and we want to compete and that’s what drives us.”
On the ice, it will be interesting to see which direction the Capitals will go with Backstrom next season. Evgeny Kuznetsov (77 points) became the first player not named Ovechkin or Backstrom to lead the Caps in scoring during the Ovechkin era and he could begin next season as the Caps’ top-line center.
How that potential switch could affect Backstrom’s ice time and offensive totals next season remains to be seen, but Backstrom seems convinced that with 17 players under contract for next season, the Capitals have the personnel to make another run at a championship.
“If you compare this to my first couple years, I feel like even if we lost, it’s a special group,” he said. “I feel like we’ve got something special, and we just need to execute. We need to win games when we need to. At the end of the day it’s all about winning. We need to get over the hump that we can’t get over. That’s what I feel like. Every time when it ends, it’s so quick and so frustrating.
“I feel like we need to be better as a group when it counts, everybody. It’s just not one or two players, it’s everybody. We need to be better.”
MORE CAPITALS: 2015-16 CAPITALS IN REVIEW: JUSTIN WILLIAMS