Another week went by in the world’s greatest hockey league, and Nicklas Backstrom went virtually unrecognized, so stellar and yet so stealthy.
The Capitals’ first-line center had a riveting nine points, assisting on seven goals and scoring two of his own. Playing maestro on offense, he was also quick to give up his body when his team was a man down. He played the same two-way, consummate game he has been known for in Washington for seven seasons.
But when the NHL named its three stars of the week, Backstrom was nowhere to be found among two goalies and the first star, his eye-catching, irresistible teammate in time — goal-scorer extraordinaire Alex Ovechkin.
“He had a better week than me, but it’s one of those things,” Ovechkin said, shrugging his shoulders.
One of the things, of course, means many of us become so fixated on highlight goals we rarely acknowledge the player who made that moment possible, the best all-around player on the Capitals.
“I think he’s closest to one of the best players in the league, if not the best,” veteran left wing Jason Chimera said. “He doesn’t just set up the offense, pass and score. Nickie blocks shots, penalty kills, plays on the power play. He’s probably the most important guy on the team.”
John Carlson, his teammate since 2009, calls Backstrom “the quarterback of everything — he controls so much on the ice that people don’t even see.”
There might be no elite athlete in town more taken for granted than Backstrom, who has remarkably assisted on 129 of Ovechkin’s 399 career goals — and already 17 of Ovi’s league-leading 28 goals this season. “If you look at Ovi’s goals, most of them are set up by a guy wearing number 19,” Chimera says.
As active players go, just Jaromir Jagr, Joe Thornton, Sidney Crosby, Teemu Selanne and Henrik Sedin, his Swedish countryman, have had more three-assist games than Backstrom. Since he came into the league in 2007, no player has recorded more three-assist games.
The Capitals appreciate Backstrom enough to pay him more than $6 million per season. But much of the league views him as the proverbial second banana, what John Stockton was to Karl Malone, what Scottie Pippen was to Michael Jordan, what, well, Adam Oates was to Brett Hull for several years in St. Louis — the essential, mild-mannered, do-it-all teammate needed for the telegenic star to thrive.
“Hully was the flamboyant superstar, and I was the quiet guy,” said Oates, the Capitals’ coach, after practice earlier this week. “Backie is the quiet guy. Ovi is the flamboyant superstar. He doesn’t need to jump and do wheelies and stuff like that. That’s not who he is. All I ever cared about when I played was that Hully appreciated it, which Ovi does. Ovi loves him.”
Ovechkin said of Backstrom: “He’s quiet guy. He don’t like to be the first guy in the picture. But he’s such a great person. Since he came here, Backie never change. Everybody listen to him. He’s our leader, same as I am, same as Greenie and Brooksie,” he added, referring to the other holdovers on the team, Mike Green and Brooks Laich.
The best quality in Backstrom is that he couldn’t care less whether one or 1,000 words were written about him. He sat almost sheepishly by his locker room cubicle Monday in an empty locker room at the team’s practice facility in Ballston, trying to explain the gifts he was given and developed at an early age in Sweden — the peripheral vision, the deft stick-handling, the ability to anticipate a teammate streaking down the ice behind him.
“It’s pretty simple: I like to be one step ahead,” he said. “Usually when I get the puck I want to know what I’m going to do with it once I get it.”
Beneath the stoic European stereotype, Backstrom said he burns passionately for a Stanley Cup — cursing his team’s fortune each year the Capitals are eliminated in the playoffs. “That’s the only thing I care about right now,” he said. “I think our fans are deserving. That would be amazing. All the sports here are not doing too well, so it would be fun to give them something. It’s the last step. We have to handle the playoffs. We need to take the next step.”
Each postseason series lost in seven games gnaws at his innards — especially 2009, 2012 and last season.
“Last year I thought we should have beat the Rangers,” Backstrom said. “I thought we were better than them in seven games. But that’s the game of hockey. I think when Dale [Hunter] was here, we should have beat the Rangers as well — if we didn’t lose that Game 5 in the last seconds.”
He also bemoans the loss to the Penguins in 2009, agreeing with me that if Ovechkin had scored on Marc-Andre Fleury on a breakaway early in the game — instead of being stoned by the Pittsburgh goalie — maybe that game propels the Caps toward the Cup instead of the Penguins.
“Ovi doesn’t score there, they get two goals, it’s a different game — yeah, that was tough,” Backstrom said. “I feel like every year it’s something different. We don’t get the breaks. Now I feel like we have more experience.”
He wasn’t merely talking about his job; Backstrom feels older, wiser than the days when he, Ovechkin, Green and others would frequent local watering holes when they had down time. Josephine on Vermont Avenue was a particularly popular spot.
“We were there a couple of years ago, but we don’t go there no more,” Backstrom said. “We all got girlfriends, wives and fiancees now. It’s a different situation.”
The father of a 2-month-old girl, Haley, with his girlfriend, Liza Berg, Backstrom called his daughter “the next step in my life.”
“Obviously you do things when you’re young, but you grow as a person, mature,” he said. “It’s a great feeling. I love the life I have right now.”
He turned 26 last month, which doesn’t sound old until he is reminded he came to Washington in 2007 as a teenager and now is an established veteran.
“To be honest with you, I feel like I got here yesterday,” Backstrom said. “Time just flies by, you know.”
Yep. That’s what happens when an overlooked premier player works his magic, sacrificing celebrity for someone else’s fame, all in the name of a chalice Backstrom still yearns to drink from, the night he sees the Capitals winning it all.
“It’s the only thing I play for,” he said. “It’s the only thing we should all play for.”
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.