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Nicklas Backstrom passes 600 career assists with a three-point night vs. Canucks

Nicklas Backstrom passes 600 career assists with a three-point night vs. Canucks

Nicklas Backstrom can so often be overlooked thanks to his superstar teammates. But on a night in which Alex Ovechkin scored two goals and four points and John Carlson had a goal and three points, Backstrom was the man of the hour on Monday in Vancouver.

With his three assists on the night, Backstrom tallied assists No. 599, 600 and 601 of his career. He is just the 87th player in the history of the NHL to reach the 600-assist mark.

“It means that I’ve been playing in this league a long time I think now,” Backstrom told NBC Sports Washington’s Alan May after the game. “It's a nice milestone, of course, but we’re not going to stop here. We’re just going to keep going.”

Very fittingly, Backstrom’s 600th assist came on a power play goal to Ovechkin. Per NHL Stats, 235 of Backstrom’s 601 assists have been to Ovechkin. T.J. Oshie comes in at a very, very distant second as Backstrom has set up the veteran winger 49 times.

Ovechkin and Backstrom’s careers will be forever linked given the success they have had together in Washington. While that has caused many to overlook the soft-spoken Swede, it is foolish to continue to underrate him and his ability.

Backstrom is an absolute superstar who just so happens to play on the same team as one of the best players in the world and one of the biggest personalities in the sport.

But make no mistake, Backstrom is an elite talent in his own right.

Backstrom is now the first player from the 2006 draft class to reach 600 assists. The next closest is Philadelphia Flyers forward Claude Giroux with 471.

The level of success Backstrom has managed to find while in the league has been surprising even to him.

“I wasn’t really sure what I expected out of myself,” he said. “I was just trying to enjoy it. Luckily this organization believed in me and played me a lot after a couple games there and then it just took off. It’s been going fast, but I’ve had so much fun.”

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Capitals Prospect Report: Gersich takes the next step in his development

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Capitals Prospect Report: Gersich takes the next step in his development

In Brendan Leipsic's last year in the WHL, he scored 39 goals and 52 assists in just 60 games. In his last season in the AHL, he scored 51 points in 49 games. Yet, in the NHL he struggled to find a role that seemed to fit until the Capitals signed him to be a fourth-line player. He is a good example of why it can be difficult to find depth players in the NHL. Prospects make it to the league by being one of the best players at every level from youth hockey to juniors, to the minors. Then when they reach the NHL, they are suddenly not the best player anymore and their game has to adapt. A player like Leipsic who was a top offensive threat in juniors has to become a different player to earn his keep in the NHL.

So when you read about how prospect Shane Gersich has only eight points in 23 games and is focusing more on his play in his own end, you may take this as a troubling step back, but that would be a mistake. This reflects a necessary step in his development.

Gersich showed some skill at the University of North Dakota. In his final two seasons there, he produced 37 points and 29 points respectively, both in 40 games. But he never looked like he was going to be a top producer at the NHL level and was never projected to be. Gersich was drafted in the fifth round of the 2014 draft and always looked to be better suited for a bottom-six role in the NHL. Playing in the bottom six means being strong in your own end of the ice, something Gersich is working on this season as detailed in this profile by NOVA Caps.

Travis Boyd is also a player projected for a bottom-six role. In Hershey, however, his role was always an offensive one. He typically played on the top two lines and did not contribute on the penalty kill. He does have a lot of offensive skill for the AHL game, but ultimately he has struggled to find his place in the Caps' lineup because he does not provide the kind of things usually asked of a third and fourth-line player.

Producing points is always important. no matter what line you are on so of course Boyd is still a player with value. Hopefully Gersich will be able to produce at the NHL level as well. By playing more of a two-way game in the AHL, however, and focusing on things like defensive play and the penalty kill, Gersich will have a much clearer path to the NHL than he would as just a top-six AHL forward.

Other prospect notes

  • We are a long way off from knowing just how good the Caps' 2019 draft was, but the early returns look pretty darn good. Check out a draft class update from The Hockey Writers.
  • With Team Canada gearing up for the World Junior Championship, there is a lot of attention being paid to Connor McMichael. His tremendous season has caught the attention of many analysts including those at The Hockey News where he is declared the prospect who has shown the most unexpected growth in this awkwardly intimate video. Prospect analyst Craig Button also talks about the role McMichael will have on Team Canada and how he has the skillset to fill just about any forward role on the ice.
  • As teams prepare for the World Junior Championship at the end of the month, Aliaksei Protas' tournament has already begun. Belarus is a level below the top tournament and is currently hosting the Division I Group A tournament. Protas has one goal and one assist as Belarus sits fourth in the standings out of six teams.
  • Beck Malenstyn was given a three-game suspension by the AHL for elbowing. The suspension began on Sunday and will keep him out on Saturday and Sunday of this week's action. Here's a video of the play, though it is hard to see exactly what happened.
  • Joe Snively had two points through 16 games. In the past nine, he recorded eight. He scored twice over the weekend and now sits second on the team in goals with seven. Someone asked this week in the Capitals Mailbag if Snively could possibly get a call up this season. As good as he has played, Snively has the maximum cap hit for an entry-level contract at $925,000. Because of that, I doubt we see him in Washington this season.
  • Vitek Vanecek was named Hershey's PSECU Player of the Week after two impressive starts. He got the nod on Friday and turned aside 25 shots in a 2-1 win over Lehigh Valley. Bears head coach Spencer Carbery is very regular in his goalie rotation, but after a strong start on Friday and considering Hershey was playing three games in three nights and Vanecek was going to get two starts anyway, Carbery elected to go with the hot hand on Saturday and started Vanecek again. Vanecek rewarded the coach's faith with a 32-shot shutout performance to once again shut down the Phantoms. The shutout was Vanecek's first of the season. He has now allowed two goals or fewer in five of his past six starts.
  • Bobby Nardella returned to the lineup after missing 12 games with an upper-body injury. He had an assist in Sunday's game giving him four on the season in just five appearances.
  • Check out this profile an Axel Jonsson-Fjallby from Chocolate Hockey.

 

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Ex-Bruins goalie Tim Thomas details mental health issues on day he's inducted into U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame

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Ex-Bruins goalie Tim Thomas details mental health issues on day he's inducted into U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame

WASHINGTON — The tears rolled down Tim Thomas’ cheeks. 

Honored with induction into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, the former Boston Bruins goalie, a Stanley Cup champion, one of the greatest American players of all time, spoke of the hard end to his playing career and the brain damage he sustained playing the sport he loved. 

While playing for the Florida Panthers in 2013-14, his final season, Thomas sustained a concussion that December which left him debilitated. It was an injury “that changed my life,” Thomas said. 

Speaking publicly for the first time since retiring from hockey in 2014, the reclusive Thomas, a Michigan native who now lives in Idaho with his family, described a darkening spiral. He awoke the morning after his concussion and couldn’t decide what he wanted to eat, where he wanted to go. He couldn’t plan a schedule. Thomas survived by just following the team schedule put together by the Panthers - and later, the Dallas Stars after a trade. 

One year after retiring, Thomas found he couldn’t keep up with the sport on television or in person. He underwent a CereScan, which measures the flow of blood to the brain by using radioactive isotopes. Thomas claims the numbers showed two thirds of his brain was getting less than five percent of the necessary blood flow and the other third was getting about 50 percent.    

“I've struggled mightily with how do I process the experience that I've been through and rectify that with the love of the game that I had my whole life until I crashed, so to speak,” Thomas said. “That happened. I still haven't worked my whole way through that process.”

Thomas was a late bloomer. He played four years at the University of Vermont and after turning pro bounced around minor leagues in North America and played in Europe, too. He was 31 before he earned a roster spot with Boston and 33 before he was the unquestioned No. 1 goalie. 

But he went on a brilliant seven-year run, winning the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goalie in 2008-09 and 2010-11. That year he led the Bruins to the Stanley Cup and won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP. He also played for 2010 U.S. Olympic Team in Vancouver, which won the silver medal. Hockey brought him immense joy and he was thrilled to be honored with induction into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.       

"I can see the positive sides of the whole hockey life and everything. It doesn't take away from that,” Thomas said. “I guess, I don't know where I stand completely on the game of hockey at the levels where people are injuring themselves to the levels that they actually are and my involvement in that.”

That will take some time. The pain is still raw. Thomas’ wife and children suffered because he was suffering with his mental health. He couldn’t communicate with anybody for a few years. He didn’t call his dad - or his old teammates, who were still stuck in that hockey life he had left behind. He just didn’t want to bother anybody. His love for the game was part of the heavy price paid.  

“There was a time period, yeah, where I hated the game,” Thomas said. “I didn't sit there and (say) I hate it. My rebound effect was like, this wasn't worth it. That's where I was then. Where I am today is past that. I ended up learning so many lessons out of the experience.”

But that doesn’t mean normal. Thomas isn’t sure what that word even means at this point. He’s endured ups and downs and only started to feel like his old self about two years ago. Oxygen therapy helped, Thomas said, and he believes plenty of special mineral water did, too. He wouldn’t have been able to make the trip to Washington to take part in this ceremony otherwise. Better doesn’t mean fully healed, though   

“I still can’t choose,” Thomas said. “I’m so much better, but I wake up every day and basically I have to reorder everything in my mind for the first couple hours of the day and then make a list and try to make some choices to get some stuff done, on which I have gotten to the level that I can.”

Thomas spoke haltingly to the gathered reporters. He paused, choked up multiple times and tried to keep his composure. The tears rolled down his cheeks anyway. On what was a monumental day honoring his accomplishments on the ice, this was as big a part of his story as any of that. After six years, he is finally able to talk and he hopes current hockey players can learn from his struggles with mental health.   

"I didn't want to talk about this. I didn't want to talk,” Thomas said “I didn't want to tell the world this stuff. Not untill I felt ready, and I didn't feel ready yet. But here I am.”

The book “Game Change” written by former Montreal Canadiens Hall of Fame goalie Ken Dryden helped, Thomas said. That story details the struggles of longtime NHL defenseman Steve Montador, who died in 2015 at age 35 and who researchers later determined had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the neurological disease caused by repeated head injuries.

Learning about Montador’s issues made Thomas realize he wasn’t unique, he wasn’t alone. He’s channeled the competitive drive that allowed him to become an elite NHL goalie and channeled that into learning about mental health. 

On Tuesday, Thomas attended his first NHL game since leaving the sport in 2014. Ironically, his old Bruins were in Washington to play the Capitals and the 2019 inductees were honored before the game. Thomas had only seen former teammate Johnny Boychuk a few years back, but otherwise had fallen out of touch with most others.

Tuesday, Thomas got to catch up with Bruins staffers still with the organization and also ex-teammates Zdeno Chara, Tuukka Rask, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Kreiji. Those five are still with Boston and they were on the ice with Thomas that memorable night in Vancouver eight years ago when they won the Stanley Cup together. 

Seeing them again was a blast, even if for a short time - a chance to immerse himself in a game that had given him so much but for a long time has been lost to him. 

"Being welcomed back into the arms of the hockey family has been great,” Thomas said. “It's reminded me of all the great people that I crossed paths with all throughout my career. It's been very impactful."

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