A quiet excellence: Caps' Backstrom's journey to 1,000 points


For a player who has never been the center of attention, or even craved the spotlight, it was ironic that Nicklas Backstrom’s 1,000th point was celebrated twice. 

After a disallowed goal in the second period of Wednesday’s game against the Edmonton Oilers, on which Backstrom would’ve received a primary assist, he got another chance in the third period to reach his milestone. This time, it counted. 

With the Capitals on the power play and down a goal, Backstrom skated toward center ice and held the puck just long enough to freeze the Oilers’ defense and find a streaking teammate T.J. Oshie to his right. He hit him in stride. 

Oshie collected the puck, skated in and fired a wrister from the faceoff dot that found the back of the net and, officially, put Backstrom in rare company. 

He became just the 93rd player and the sixth Swede in NHL history to reach the mark. Washington’s franchise leader in assists (737) found a way to make the latest one look pretty, too. 

The big moment wasn’t necessarily befitting of Backstrom, though, even as Oshie celebrated like it was Backstrom that had scored and tied the game. Frankly, those moments never have been his style.

But for those that have been around through his 15 seasons in Washington, they all say there’s not a player more deserving of every ounce of praise sent his way. And now with 1,000 points under his belt, there’s a tangible way to prove Backstrom’s ability through the years.


“I’ll tell you what,” former teammate and linemate Mike Knuble said. “You ask anybody who’s been his opponent for the last 10 or 15 years and be like, ‘Who’s a guy that doesn’t get the attention he deserves?’ I can’t believe there’s not a guy, especially the guys that play in the Eastern Conference, that wouldn’t say it’s Nick Backstrom.”

The Young Guns

For a few special years of Capitals history, their games were akin to attending rock concerts. And sometimes, that comparison could be made literally.

With Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin, Mike Green and Alex Semin running the show, the Capitals were the most fun team in hockey in the early days of Backstrom’s career. They scored a dizzying 318 goals in the 2009-10 season, Backstrom’s third with the team, as they electrified the NHL night in and night out. 

“It was kind of like being in a rock band,” said Matt Hendricks, who played with Backstrom for three seasons. “And they were the lead singers, and I was the guy in the back stringing guitars and stuff. It was so much fun.”

As for that 09-10 season, that edition of the Capitals scored more goals in a season than every other NHL team since the 1995-96 Pittsburgh Penguins, and while Ovechkin was the man in front with a 50-goal season, Backstrom put up a career-best 68 assists for a Washington team that was never out of a game. 

Backstrom and the rest of the “Young Guns” even had long hair (including Green’s faux-hawk) like rockstars as they lit up the NHL for the first few years with Backstrom as the team’s top center. 

Knuble, who played for the Philadelphia Flyers in Backstrom and Co.’s first Stanley Cup playoff series in 2008, vividly remembers the speed at which the team played. They would collect the puck and slow things down before Green or Backstrom would make a nice set-up pass. 

“And then they were just gone down the ice,” Knuble said.

The Capitals’ high-octane brand of hockey wasn’t for the faint of heart — they were known to win hockey games in, as some more traditional minds felt, unsustainable ways. 

What was sustainable and evident very early on was their skill level together. 

Hendricks was a member of the Providence Bruins in the AHL in Backstrom’s rookie season in 2007-08 when he and a few of his teammates decided to take in a game in Boston with Washington in town. Immediately, they were stunned by the skill level of the Capitals and Backstrom in particular. 

Hendricks recalled a play where Backstrom threw a backhand saucer pass to the far side of the ice, over two Bruins’ players’ sticks and onto Ovechkin’s tape for a great scoring chance.


“I’m six years older than this guy and I would not even remotely try, never even thought of trying to do that. He just made it look like it was easy.” Hendricks said. 

While Backstrom put up some of the best statistical years of his career, it wasn’t always easy for him or the Capitals.

They consistently flamed out in the playoffs during those years which led to questions about the future of the team and that particular group. To the Flyers in a Game 7 overtime in 2008, to the Penguins in a seven-game second-round series in 2009 and worst of all to the Montreal Canadiens, the No. 8 seed, in a blown 3-1 series lead in the first round in 2010. 

“Invariably, the person who looked, to me most crushed by losing out was Nick,” NBC Sports Washington play-by-play commentator Joe Beninati said. “He was, and is, such an incredible competitor. It broke him. It hurt him. Not that it didn’t to other guys, but visibly, he was the one that looked the most shaken. He was the one that looked the most upset that they fell short.”

As the years went by and playoff losses piled up, the “Young Guns” eventually cut their hair. There were a few years of transition in coaching, management and roster construction, and by the time Backstrom hit 30, just he and Ovechkin were left of the group that once played with such youthful exuberance. 

Just when it seemed like a new era could be drawing near, though, the Capitals broke through the Penguins and eventually into the Stanley Cup Final in 2018. Then in the clinching game against the Vegas Golden Knights, Backstrom made perhaps the best pass of his career to Ovechkin which gave Washington a 2-1 lead. 

And when the final horn sounded and the championship celebration commenced, the two remaining Young Guns, one with graying hair, the other with his injured hand wrapped, hoisted the Stanley Cup together.

“They were the ones (where), ‘All the pressure’s on your back! It’s all on you guys!’” Beninati said. “At least, everybody outside the dressing room would’ve said that. For them to actually do it and win it and then share it and look in each other’s eyes and skate that Cup around together, that never fails to get me emotional.”

Ovechkin and Backstrom

Karl Alzner was one of the first people in the hockey world to get an in-person look at Backstrom and Ovechkin together.

At the 2006 NHL Draft in Vancouver, then-Washington general manager George McPhee and his staff had their eyes set on the Swedish center who they felt would be an instant playmaker in the league. The only issue was hoping he fell to fourth overall. 

Backstrom was indeed there for the taking, and as Alzner – a Vancouver-area native and himself a top young prospect a year away from being draft eligible – watched the draft live at then-GM Place as both of Washington’s youngest talents stood on the stage and grinned from ear-to-ear. 


Later that year, Alzner and Team Canada played against Backstrom and Team Sweden at the annual World Juniors tournament for the best under-20 players in the world. Then after Alzner was drafted by Washington in 2007, he attended the team’s development camp over the summer at the team’s headquarters in Arlington with the budding star.

“At that point, he was already in another stratosphere,” Alzner said.

The pairing of Backstrom and Ovechkin quickly picked up steam once they were both on the roster, as the high-flying duo made for one of the NHL’s most elite tandems. Their playstyles — Ovechkin as the eccentric winger who leaped into the glass every time he scored a goal and Backstrom as the quiet centerman who was perfectly content to play set-up-man — fit perfectly.

“Obviously they’re a pretty dynamic duo, they compliment each other very well,” Tom Wilson said. “Nicky in his own sense is one of the best players in the world for a long time…They carried a lot of the burden here for a long time. They’re pretty special hockey players.”

With a great mix of speed, talent and finesse, the Capitals’ top line made life miserable for opponents whenever they took the ice. 

“One of them has a skill set to make plays that is one of the best in the league and the other one has the ability to deliver the puck to the net,” coach Peter Laviolette said. “They’ve been such good players for such a long time year after year, and that’s the reason why this organization has done so well for so long.” 

Knuble, in his first season in Washington in 2009-10, scored the most goals-per-game of his career as the third man on the line with Ovechkin and Backstrom.

“Selfishly, you’re like, ‘Oh, I’d love to play with those guys,’ because you knew you’d be in on stuff,” Knuble said. “If you’re a free agent and they say, ‘OK here’s where we see this guy, because you have a track record of doing it before,’ that’s a dream situation for a player.”

That dream situation has benefited everyone. 

Of Ovechkin’s now 766 career goals, Backstrom has assisted on 274 (35.77%) of those tallies. 

“No. 1 written on the whiteboard is: ‘No penalties,’” Hendricks said of the keys when playing Backstrom. “Because he can make you look pretty silly out there with all those weapons he’s got to pass to.”

But more than just how they played the game, Backstrom and Ovechkin’s personalities have fit just perfectly for the team. 

While Ovechkin, as team captain, is the vocal and dramatic leader, Backstrom has been content to quietly play his part. 

“I think that’s kind of the way Nick likes it,” longtime teammate T.J. Oshie said. “He’s not a guy that likes the spotlight, per se. He likes to shine the light kind of on other guys, and that’s probably why he’s such an unselfish teammate, such a great passer. He enjoys getting other guys goals, he enjoys making the play to set up goals.”


Having Ovechkin on the roster, though, has (wrongly, as a few pointed out) hampered the ceiling of Backstrom’s individual recognition. 

Backstrom has been an All-Star just once in his career, and it took him until 2016 to become one. He’s never won a major award, and the closest he’s come since his rookie season was when he finished seventh in Selke voting in 2016.  

But as Backstrom and Ovechkin continue past 1,000 games played together, it’d be impossible to tell the story of one without the other.

“It wasn’t a good combination for getting those types of accolades,” Alzner said. “But it was a good combination that that’s the type of person that wouldn’t care. I think the guys appreciate that even more.”

A quiet excellence

Those who have played with Backstrom seemingly cannot emphasize his simplistic greatness enough. 

Alzner told the story of Backstrom’s flat backhand saucer passes that look easy enough for others to complete, until they actually attempt to do so. Knuble praised Backstrom’s patience with the puck and how his intelligence on the ice gives him more time than others. Beninati has called many games through the years where a simple head-fake sets multiple things in motion for an eventual scoring chance. 

What everyone is eager to talk about with Backstrom’s game is how it’s subtle. It doesn’t hit you in the face like a great deke on a breakaway does. It’s only appreciated with a watchful eye.

“All you can really see from the stands is, ‘OK, the puck just went from his stick to OV’s stick,’” Alzner said. “But you can’t see exactly how it did that, you can’t see the lane that he found, how he did that with his eyes, how he’s been able to elevate a puck over someone’s stick and right on the tape flat. These are the things you get to see when you’re up close.”

While Backstrom’s playmaking ability lends itself to a more background type of role, it’s the way he’s gone about his job en route to 1,000 points that’s been the most impressive. 

“From the moment you get on the ice with him, you realize just how good and how special of a player he really is,” Hendricks said. “He’s got an extremely high hockey IQ and he thinks and understands the game at a level that’s rare. There’s not a lot of players that can think and play the game of hockey like he does.”

Beninati compared his vision and passing to that of a talented chess player: No matter what the opponent thinks or does, Backstrom finds himself two or three steps ahead. 


It’s not always a direct pass that leads to a goal either. Backstrom has excelled in making the first pass in what turns out to be a series of passes in a great scoring opportunity. 

That, inevitably, has led to what some think is an underappreciation of what Backstrom brings to the table. But those involved with the game insist time and time again just how much of a force Backstrom has been through the years.

“I always have this discussion with people in the business,” Beninati said. “Is he underrated? Yeah. Is he underappreciated? No. If you know the game the way the players and coaches and management do, you appreciate what he does.”

Still, the lack of individual accolades could be hard to overlook for some when the day comes where Backstrom walks away from the game and enters a waiting period where the Hockey Hall of Fame may or may not call. 

Yet to those that took the ice with him, or watched him with a studious eye since he held up a Capitals jersey for the first time, it’s hard to undersell the last 15 years of Backstrom’s tenure in D.C. 

“I think you see the plays that he makes and I think you see the offense that he brings to the table,” Washington coach Peter Laviolette said. “What sometimes you don’t see, you see it because you coach him or his teammates see it, or maybe everybody sees it, is how smart he is out on the ice. His hockey IQ is through the roof. He sees things offensively. He sees things defensively.”

“Grateful for the opportunity”

Backstrom, as he’s one to do, didn’t wax poetic about his upcoming 1,000th point when he had the chance.

“It’s going to mean a lot,” Backstrom told NBC Sports Washington's Al Koken while four points away from the milestone. “It’s just going to prove I’ve been here a long time and we did some good things over the years.” 

But in a change, as Backstrom finds himself in rarer company with each point he gets, it’s been others that are eager to let Backstrom have the spotlight.

“I think every teammate that played with Nicky would say they’re grateful for the opportunity,” Hendricks said. “You had the ability to learn a lot from him. I wasn’t the offensive guy, not even remotely close to him, but he helped me a lot on the penalty kill.”

Now with five goals and 15 assists in 26 games this season, Backstrom has returned from a hip injury and helped solidify the Capitals’ top six. And like many years past, Backstrom helped Ovechkin move further up the NHL’s all-time goal-scoring list and, in turn, helped give himself an impressive milestone of his own. 

One thousand points certainly isn’t the end for Backstrom — he’s under contract for three seasons after this one, and who knows how many points he’ll have when that day comes.


Perhaps by then, though, his impact will become clearer to more than those who experienced his career in Washington through his first 1,000 points.

“He’s an underrated goal-scorer, he’s definitely an underrated defensive player,” Beninati said. “But people will appreciate how good of a playmaker, table-setter, set-up-man, whatever you want to call it. He’s been a brilliant offensive coordinator for a long, long time. He’s amazing.”