Struggling Nicklas Backstrom needs a jump start

February 7, 2013

STATISTICAL ANALYSIS | Since he was drafted fourth overall in 2006, the center of the Washington offense — literally — has been Nicklas Backstrom. The Swedish center has notched 101 goals and 266 assists in his first five NHL seasons, including becoming only the fourth Capital to reach the 100-point plateau. At the end of that 2009-10 campaign, he was rewarded with a 10-year, $67 million contract extension that was designed to keep him alongside two-time MVP Alex Ovechkin through the 2019-20 season.

Ten games into this season, Backstrom is not living up to expectations. He has one goal and seven assists, but just two of those assists have been the primary setup. We have only seen glimpses of Backstrom’s strong neutral-zone play, like when he capitalized on a Guillaume Latendresse turnover at the Washington blue line, ending up in the net on a Troy Brouwer backhand after a two-on-one with Wojtek Wolski. But aside from that he has been largely invisible, especially in the faceoff circle, where he is winning at just a 46.4 percent clip.

Backstrom has typically been a driver of points for his line when he is on the ice, especially on the power play. Last season he had the goal or primary assist on 52.6 percent of the power-play goals scored, and 56.5 percent the season before that. This season he has yet to contribute anything during the man advantage, except for three secondary assists and three shots on goal in 44:12 of power-play time (second most on the team among forwards). In fact, Washington’s power-play unit is generating 39.5 shots per 60 minutes with Backstrom on the ice, but a whopping 48.4 shots when he is on the bench. Small sample size caveats apply, but that’s a complete turnaround from recent years.

That lack of shots at net is part of the reason the Caps’ power-play sits 14th in the league at 20.0 percent efficiency. Under Oates’s 1-3-1 system, Backstrom is stationed as one of the quarterbacks on the right half wall and must be a threat to shoot. Instead, he has taken three shots and is more often than not stationary without the puck.

At even strength, the story is the same: There aren’t many more shots are being generated when Backstrom is on the bench (25.0 per 60 minutes) than when he is on the ice (27.3). Some of that could be attributed to a different set of linemates. Last season, Backstrom skated mostly with Ovechkin, Troy Brouwer and Alex Semin. This year he has found himself primarily with Marcus Johansson, Brouwer and Wojtek Wolski, with Jason Chimera a late addition during Tuesday’s tilt against Toronto. Normally skating with less skilled players would not be a problem – Backstrom has been the driver for his line before, seeing 56 percent of even-strength shots at net (including goals, saved and missed) in Washington’s favor before this season, but now he sits at less than 53 percent.

So how can the Caps get their Super Swede back on track?

First, consider reuniting him with Ovechkin for the short term. The two spent more than two-thirds of their time during even-strength together from 2007-2012, and Backstrom amassed 43 goals and 109 assists. This year they haven’t even shared half their ice time together. Backstrom has just five points and Ovechkin only two goals – and none of those goals were at even-strength.

Second, lighten the defensive burden for a little while. Backstrom leads Washington centermen in defensive zone faceoffs, having taken 52 of those faceoffs. Mike Ribeiro is next with 49. Maybe some extra starts in the offensive zone will help jump start Backstrom’s offense.

And lastly, give some thought into keeping Marcus Johansson off his line. Johansson is struggling, skating 14:00 a night and with just one point and four shots on goal to show for it. Plus, not one skater has seen better puck possession with Johansson than without him, indicating that perhaps two Swedes aren’t better than one.

Follow Neil on Twitter: @ngreenberg.

Neil Greenberg analyzes advanced sports statistics for the Fancy Stats blog and prefers to be called a geek rather than a nerd.
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