Nicklas Backstrom had just wrapped up a lengthy, on-ice workout one March morning in Montreal when he wiped his sweaty blond hair out of his eyes and muttered, “I can’t take this anymore.”
The Washington Capitals’ top center would miss a fourth game that night with a broken left thumb. The extra skating sessions, combined with a sense of helplessness as he watched games from above in the press box, made Backstrom restless.
The 23-year-old Swede had never missed an NHL contest until the injury ended his streak of consecutive games played at 341.
“He called after sitting out the first game and told me, ‘I hate sitting out. I want to play. I want to help my teammates,’” Backstrom’s father, Anders, said in a recent phone interview. “That’s just the way he is. He wants to do everything he can to lead Washington. He wants that pressure.”
Backstrom may be one of the most soft-spoken players in Washington’s dressing room, and he prefers to leave the spotlight open for his close friend and usual linemate Alex Ovechkin. But as the Capitals prepare to enter the Stanley Cup playoffs next week for a fourth consecutive season — they clinched the Eastern Conference top seed on Friday night — Backstrom has embraced his position within the foundation of the franchise in his own understated manner.
“When we lose, I always feel like it’s a little bit my fault,” said Backstrom, who has 10 points in nine games since returning from the injury. “Especially now, with the playoffs coming, I feel a big responsibility to make sure we take care of business there.”
This year has not been easy for Backstrom, from a dramatic drop-off in points — he has 65 this season after finishing with 101 in 2009-10 — to the broken thumb that bothered him more than he initially acknowledged.
Barring a five-point outing against the Florida Panthers Saturday in the regular season finale, he will finish with a career low. Earlier this year, he went through a stretch of 26 games in which he scored just one goal. It was the worst slump of his career.
“I don’t have a good answer about that,” he said. “Sometimes, I think it was my turn to struggle — I feel better now.”
When Backstrom signed a 10-year, $67 million contract extension last spring, it only formalized his sense of ownership in the rise and fall of the organization.
Selected fourth overall in the 2006 NHL draft, Backstrom arrived in Washington in the fall of 2007. He struggled in his first North American training camp, to the extent that Washington briefly considered sending him to Hershey to start the season with the minor league affiliate Bears before keeping him on the fourth line.
When Coach Bruce Boudreau took over for Glen Hanlon on Thanksgiving day, though, he moved Backstrom alongside Ovechkin on a hunch that the young players, who were becoming friends off the ice, would find the same chemistry on it.
Where many have tried and struggled to play next to the larger-than-life Russian left wing, Backstrom fit naturally. He didn’t compete with Ovechkin’s flair, but he also didn’t defer to the star’s strong personality and opinions of how to play the game. He finished the 2007-08 season with 69 points, and his 55 assists were the most among rookies.
“He’s the yin to Alex’s yang,” Boudreau said. “But I see Nicky being his own man. If he doesn’t like something, he doesn’t do it — no matter if Ovie wants it that way. If Nicky’s coming up the ice and he’s got Ovie on the left and Mike Knuble on the right, he will pass it to the guy who’s in the best position. That takes a lot of strength for anyone, and he is very strong in his own way.”
Backstrom and Ovechkin will occasionally get into arguments. Coaches recalled one shouting match during pregame warmups about how to go about an on-ice play. It’s a push and pull between the two that helps them both grow, Ovechkin said.
“Sometimes I have to be more open to other things,” Ovechkin said. “He can force me to see that. I think you have to talk and you have to say things, have respect, if you’re going to play with someone as much as we do. I know if he plays well, I’m going to play well and in the end we come back here and are friends.”
The mutual respect is mirrored in Backstrom’s relationship with Boudreau. The coach understands the center is generally reserved and chooses his moments to speak up precisely, so when Backstrom suggests a different approach in the middle of a game or during a practice, Boudreau takes heed.
When it comes to his teammates, Backstrom is appreciative. As a thank-you present for helping him reach his first 100-point season, Backstrom gave iPads to each of the Capitals at the start of this year. “I can’t do what I do without them,” he said quietly when asked about the gesture.
“Before I came here, I just knew he was a good player,” veteran right wing Mike Knuble said. “When you’re around him every day you see how talented he is, how driven and how much attention he pays to every little thing, even though he’s that good. That doesn’t go unnoticed.”
Backstrom’s workmanlike attitude was one of the reasons Boudreau named him one of the team’s alternate captains this season. He had previously served as a captain of the Swedish national team as a teenager, but the acknowledgment of his significance to the Capitals gave him pause.
“It made me think,” Backstrom said. “I’m going to be here for a long time, and that’s a pretty important thing. There’s a different feeling when you know you will spend so much time with one team, and Washington is the place I want to be. I try to make sure we’re doing the right things, me and the group, on the ice to win.”
That introspection stems in part from four years of playoff disappointment. Each year of his NHL career, Backstrom has played in the postseason. Each premature loss, he said, has been a new lesson on what it takes to win in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Last offseason, after Montreal knocked Washington out of the first round, the defeat had a visible effect on the stoic Swede.
“He was very disappointed,” Anders Backstrom said. “He had that in his mind all summer and he practiced harder and worked harder the whole time thinking about it. But when this year began, he knew it had to be forgotten and he had to move on. He’s really proud to be the assistant captain. I don’t think he looks for attention — he’s an informal type leader — but he wants so much to do well in the playoffs and he will do everything for that.”