The Washington Post

Backstrom’s quiet MVP-caliber campaign

(John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Nicklas Backstrom gets little to no respect as one of the league’s best centers. And that’s to be expected with more high-profile candidates such as Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Evgeni Malkin, John Tavares, Anze Kopitar, Patrice Bergeron and the like in the mix. However, to dismiss him as merely a passenger on the Alex Ovechkin Express is ridiculous.

No one thinks that it’s hard to get points playing alongside Alex Ovechkin, and to some extent one has to wonder just how good Marcus Johansson or Nicklas Backstrom really are if they’re racking up these silly assist totals playing on his line. Get him the puck, and let him score and you’re on close to an assist a game. Careers, admittedly, have been made on less. – Ryan Lambert of Puck Daddy

Last season, Ovechkin hardly gave his linemates the opportunity to rack up an assist per game. In fact, here is the 2012-13 list of even-strength assists by anyone other than Marcus Johansson and/or Nicklas Backstrom:

Three assists: Mike Ribeiro
Two assists: John Carlson, Jason Chimera
One assist: Jack Hillen, Matt Hendricks, Steven Oleksy, Karl Alzner, Mike Green and Jeff Schultz

The list gets even smaller on the power play:

Ten assists: Mike Ribeiro
Five assists: Mike Green
Four assists: Troy Brouwer
Three assists: John Carlson
One assist: Brooks Laich

Not a single assist-per-game player in the bunch, or anyone close. Heck, Joey Crabb and Jay Beagle spent a few games on the top line with Ovechkin and ended up with zero assists for their efforts.

This season, however, Backstrom has 18 assists on Ovechkin’s league leading 30 goals and Johansson has 13. Granted, that line has been the most consistent for Adam Oates (they skate together more than 83 percent of the time) so I would agree it is difficult to separate this year’s production, but Backstrom has a history of making things happen.

For example, since Oates took over coaching duties, almost 56 percent of all shot attempts go in Washington’s favor with Backstrom on the ice. That number drops to fewer than half when he is on the bench. Before Oates, those numbers are 55 and 51 percent, respectively. You can’t be in a position to rack up assists if your team isn’t putting pucks on net, and if you are helping tilt the ice to do that, all the better.

This isn’t to say Backstrom deserves Hart Trophy or Ted Lindsay honors, but he has quietly compiled a 95-point pace while sitting in the top three for assists. That doesn’t happen by accident.

Neil Greenberg, when he isn’t watching the games, analyzes advanced statistics in the NHL and prefers to be called a geek rather than a nerd. Follow him 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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