In January, I spoke one-on-one with Nicklas Backstrom on a story I was doing on what life was like for European players in America. Most players I talked to for this story spoke about all the things they missed about home and how difficult the transition was to life in America. Backstrom, however, spoke mainly on how much he loved it in Washington. Backstrom was in the last year of his contract and, at the time, remained unsigned. I should have realized what I was indirectly being told. I didn't. The very next week, the announcement was made, Backstrom had re-snged for five years, $46 million. It's a contract that will almost certainly make him a Capital for life.
“I had one goal in mind and that was to stay here,” Backstrom said in January. “I think personally, I always dreamed of finishing my career here and hopefully that will be the case. I love the city, I love the fans and love the organization so it was no doubt in my mind. It would be really weird to put on a different jersey.”
In his career, Backstrom has often been overshadowed by teammate Alex Ovechkin. Ovechkin is the larger-than-life goal-scorer, Backstrom is the soft-spoken, set-up player. Ovechkin will go down as one of the best to play the game. Backstrom should, but does not always get his due.
Think of the all-time great Swedish players. It's a pretty long and impressive list. Backstrom ranks seventh in points among Swedish players all-time with 927. He has more points than the great Peter Forsberg and sits just 33 short of Henrik Zetterberg.
Even if Backstrom is not appreciated by the hockey community for how great a player he is, he certainly has been by the Capitals who gave him one of the greatest honors a franchise can give.
Very few players get the honor of playing exclusively for one team for their entire career. Maybe Backstrom will ultimately finish his career somewhere else, but at the very least, the Caps showed with his new contract that the organization intends for him to never put on another team's jersey.
“You are recognized when you are with the same team for a long time and that is what I want to be,” Backstrom said. “I am a born and raised Capital and that is where I want to finish. I couldn't see myself in another jersey and I don't want to play for another team so fortunately, very fortunate to be able to sign a new contract."
Tom Brady is now a Tampa Bay Buccaneer. Peyton Manning finished his career with the Denver Broncos. Michael Jordan played one season for the Washington Wizards. Wayne Gretzky played for four different teams in his career. Gordie Howe spent one year in Hartford. None of the four players who have had their numbers retired by the Capitals played their entire careers with Washington.
Backstrom was part of the only team to win a Stanley Cup for Washington, but we have already seen Braden Holtby, the best goalie in franchise history, leave in free agency. Holtby's replacement, Ilya Samsonov, was on the team, but so is Backstrom's as he has already been replaced on the top line by Evgeny Kuznetsov. Yes, Holtby was going to cost too much to keep, but a 33-year-old Backstrom likely is not going to live up to a $9.2 million cap hit for five years.
So why Backstrom? Why was this important to the organization?
Because Backstrom has been a great ambassador to the team and to the sport. Because the "Rock the Red" era has not just been about Ovechkin, it's also been about Backstrom. It's not just that Backstrom has been one of the great players in the history of the organization, it's that his career and Ovechkin's have been linked literally since the moment Backstrom was drafted as it was Ovechkin who made the announcement.
While some want to discredit Backstrom by saying his points are a product of playing with a player like Ovechkin, really it's incredible what the two players have been able to accomplish together. If Backstrom has benefitted from playing with Ovechkin, how much has Ovechkin benefitted from playing with Backstrom? That's not a knock on either player and I don't know why people make it out to be. They are two great players and Washington does not want to see either ever suit up for another NHL team.
Neither does Backstrom who negotiated the contract himself, without an agent and without any intention of playing for anyone else.
“I love this city here,” Backstrom told NBC Sports Washington. “I just think it’s really good. I mean, it’s nice to go back [to Sweden] in the summertime, but I couldn’t wish for a better place to live in.”
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