In his eight seasons in Washington, Nicklas Backstrom has endured his share of playoff heartbreaks, each feeling a little different than the one before. So when the 27-year-old Capitals center was asked how this year’s finish compared to the Caps’ more recent exits, he was concise and profound.
“Maybe before there was no hope,” Backstrom said. “But there’s hope.”
A little more than a year ago, after the Capitals missed the playoffs for the first time since his arrival, Backstrom met with Capitals ownership and pleaded for a change. Ownership listened, introducing Barry Trotz as the Caps’ new head coach and Brian MacLellan as their new general manager one year ago today.
Back then, MacLellan and Trotz promised to bring a new culture to the organization and, despite another second-round playoff exit, Backstrom says they delivered.
“This year was definitely a step in the right direction,” Backstrom said. “It’s hard to say and it’s tough maybe for people to believe that it’s a step in the right direction when you lose Game 7 of the second round, but I feel like we’re better and hopefully we can build off this.”
Under Trotz, the Caps cut their goals allowed per game from 2.93 to 2.47 while improving their goals per game from 2.86 to 2.95. As a result, their goal differential improved from a minus-5 last season to a plus-39 and they climbed five spots in the Eastern Conference standings – from ninth place with 90 points in 2013-14 to tied for fourth in 2014-15 with 101 points.
“I think overall, from the coaching staff to the payers, it was a good system and we were really playing the way we should,” Backstrom said. “It’s not going to be easy to play in the playoffs, but the way we played was a lot better than previous years.
“I think Barry deserves lots of credit for that. The whole coaching staff put in a good system and talked a lot about sticking together and that’s real important, to play like a team. I think a lot of players stepped up and bought into this and that’s what it’s all about.”
Backstrom and his longtime linemate Alex Ovechkin managed to produce more offense this season without sacrificing their defensive game. Ovechkin led the NHL with 53 goals and Backstrom led the league with 60 assists, combining for 71 goals, 88 assists and a plus-15 rating. Last season they combined for 69 goals and 89 assists, but were a minus-55.
Backstrom was asked if he thought Ovechkin’s overall game improved under Trotz.
“Absolutely,” he said. “The biggest thing is we all bought into it, I think, and played the right way. When you do that, it’s going to be better. He had a good year. We all know what he’s capable of, he can score goals. A lot of credit to him, he’s a good player.”
Trumpeted as a Selke Trophy candidate by Trotz, Backstrom said a player can never be satisfied when he loses, but sees room for improvement in his own game.
“I can be better, everywhere, all over the ice,” he said. “I’m really boring, but I’m just being honest.”
With six unrestricted free agents and four key restricted free agents, Backstrom said he is counting on MacLellan to make the right moves to keep the Caps in the hunt for the Stanley Cup. He said one of those free agents, defenseman Mike Green, is one of his best friends on the team and is a “great person.”
“I’m sure the organization will do what’s best for the team,” Backstrom said. “Some players will probably go and some people will stay. We’ll see what happens.”
Like many of his teammates, and unlike last season, Backstrom said he believes the Caps were good enough to win the Stanley Cup this year and regrets not being in the conference finals, where the Rangers once again have rallied from a 3-2 series deficit to force a Game 7 on home ice against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“Every year when you lose it’s tough,” Backstrom said. “I feel like this year, we were better. I really think we could have won against the Rangers and we should have won, too, because we were up 3-1 with 1:40 left in Game 5. We could have beaten them 4-1. I think that was the break they were looking for and it got them back into the series again.”