Friday, September 3, 2010

30 Caps in 30 Days: Nicklas Backstrom

(During the thirty days of September, I'll be trying to preview the seasons of thirty players currently under contract with the Washington Capitals and who have a good chance of spending some time in red, white, and blue this season. Because of college applications, school, and other things, I may not be able to stick to my planned schedule of a-Cap-a-day, but I'll try my best. Advanced stats are given from ranked against other players at the same position, in the same organization, at 5-on-5, unless otherwise noted. Age is on opening night. Today, Nicklas Backstrom)

Nicklas Backstrom: age 22, 6'1", 210 pounds, shoots left.

Contract: one-way, $6 million, $6.7 million cap hit, UFA in 2020

2009-2010 linemates: 31% Alex Ovechkin and Mike Knuble, 18% Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin
2010 playoff linemates: 53% Alex Ovechkin and Mike Knuble

2009-2010 raw stats:
NHL: 82 GP, 33-68-101, +37, 222 shots, 50 PIM
Playoffs: 7 GP, 5-4-9, +7, 27 shots, 4 PIM

2009-2010 advanced stats: 4th in Corsi QoC, 6th in Corsi Rel QoC, 1st in Corsi QoT, and 1st in Corsi Rel QoT.
2010 playoffs advanced stats: 5th in Corsi QoC, 6th (last) in Corsi Rel QoC, 1st in Corsi QoT, and 1st in Corsi Rel QoT.

(Photo courtesy Caps Snaps)

WOWY (yellow is how much better the player is with Backstrom, green how much better Backstrom is with the player):

Alex Ovechkin showing up isn't a surprise, but John Erskine? Seriously? If anyone has any idea how it came to be that Nicklas Backstrom's Corsi% is significantly better with Erskine than without--and in decent sample size--drop it in the comments, please.

Nicklas Backstrom went 14-54-68 and 22-66-88 in his first two seasons, and he continued his growth in 2009-2010. For the third season in a row, he played 82 games, scored more goals than the previous season, compiled more assists than the previous season, and had a higher plus minus than the previous season, not to mention more points. Can Backstrom maintain his torrid development? Not likely. But considering he hasn't even reach prime goal scoring age, let alone prime physical condition, the number of hockey players under contract with an NHL club who have higher potential can be counted on a single hand.

Backstrom didn't just improve his slick offensive game: he also upped the ante on defense and massively improved his all-around game, to the point where there can actually be a debate about who the most important forward to the Capitals actually is. Backstrom played over a minute 4-on-5 a game and had the Caps' fourth best goals against per sixty minutes, not to mention the third best plus-minus per sixty on the team, and the eleventh best goals-versus-threshold in the NHL (2nd on the Caps). Moreover, he became--arguably (in a sense he could be higher)--the second most important player to the Caps' league-leading power play.

Still, not all is fine and dandy in the Backstrom camp. Backstrom was likely helped by high quality of teammates, especially at even strength and on the power play. While we can expect improvement in his raw defensive numbers since Caps goalies at even strength only stopped 91.9% of shots against while Backstrom was on the ice (Varlamov overall was 92.9%, Neuvirth 92.5%), Backstrom's on-ice shooting percentage% at even strength was a high 11.6%, per Timeonice. This no doubt inflated Backstrom's numbers--as it inflated all of the Caps' numbers. Backstrom also got pretty decently sheltered zonestarts. All of these numbers indicate that Backstrom, while already very good, can be better given his circumstances.

What Backstrom can do now to improve further is simply be a more dominating player. We only have a small sample of Ovechkin without Backstrom or Backstrom without Ovechkin; nevertheless, Backstrom is--at times, clearly--playing second fiddle on that line. He needs to carry the puck more and be the player. He needs to flex his arms and be more dominant, which will make him even tougher to stop. Part of this is shooting even more, but part is also carrying the puck up ice on the rush just like Ovechkin does and constantly calling for passes and moving to prime scoring, rather than playmaking, areas. On any given rush, Backstrom has the talent to be as dangerous as Ovechkin, but he doesn't always show it. While he doesn't have Ovechkin's physical tools or mobility, Backstrom's technique, core strength, toughness, and soft hands make him a very difficult player to play against, and potentially even more difficult.

Expect Backstrom to play all or almost all the games, including the playoffs. He has zero competition for his top-line center spot (and realistically, there are not more than a handful of players that could mount a serious threat to that) and thus should put up strong numbers again. With a reduction in shooting% but improvement in goalies, around 25-35 goals and 65-75 assists is Backstrom's range. Expect an all-star game berth, barring another furious fan-voting campaing a-la Montreal 2009. Expect another top-10 finish in Selke Trophy voting. Expect a reduction in PIMs, more along the lines of early in his sophomore season. His faceoff percentage should improve for the third season in a row, finally breaking 50% and maybe reaching 53%, if not more. Finally, if Backstrom can sport a Stanley Cup ring next summer, chances are very good that he will have a new Conn Smythe Trophy as well. With no answer to the second line center dilemma yet, Backstrom has a lot of pressure on him to produce, and he will. He has all the tools to actually become "the Next Forsberg."

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