Caps' Backstrom makes everyone look good

By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 22, 2009

For the past two seasons, Nicklas Backstrom's primary responsibility with the Washington Capitals has been to get the puck to Alex Ovechkin, then get out of the way.

It's a routine both players have down pat. The 21-year-old Swede is a big reason Ovechkin is hockey's most prolific goal-scorer -- just ask Ovechkin.

"He's a so-so guy, a so-so player," Ovechkin said in the Capitals' dressing room Wednesday, laughing and raising his voice just loud enough to make sure Backstrom heard him. "No, he's good. He's maturing as a player. Right now, you can see him growing up. If I play without him, maybe I don't get too many points, maybe I don't get too many goals."

Through the first eight games of his third season, Backstrom has two goals and nine assists -- four on Ovechkin goals -- and is on pace to notch a career-high 112 points to become only the second Capitals center to reach the 100-point plateau. (Dennis Maruk notched 136 in 1981-82.)

Last season, Backstrom didn't record his first goal and multipoint game until Nov. 12 en route to a strong finish that saw him end up with 22 goals and 88 points, the 10th-highest total in the league.

The potential for a marked increase in points this season isn't the only reason Backstrom could find himself in the headlines over the next eight months. In February, the slick passer is expected to start for Sweden in the Vancouver Olympic Games. He's also expected to sign a big contract extension.

How big, though, is the question.

Money matters

Both Backstrom and General Manager George McPhee acknowledged that the sides have had preliminary discussions but declined to discuss specifics. This much, however, is clear: If Backstrom can build on his sizzling start and continue to be the guy who makes Ovechkin go, his price tag is only going to go up.

Based on the types of contracts other young centers have received recently, it would make sense for Backstrom's extension to fall somewhere between the five-year, $26.625 million deal that Ryan Getzlaf signed with Anaheim and the seven-year, $47.6 million contract Anze Kopitar signed with Los Angeles. Another possibility is for Backstrom to accept a smaller annual salary for the security of a long-term deal, such as the 12-year, $69 million extension Mike Richards signed with Philadelphia.

A Richards-sized deal would ensure that Ovechkin and Backstrom remain together for the entirety of their primes. It's also possible the team will ask Backstrom to consider something else: The size of his contract could impact their ability to retain Alexander Semin, who also is set to be a restricted free agent next summer.

"We'll see what happens," Backstrom said. "I still have [this] year on my contract. All I can say is I'm happy to play for the Capitals. I like the city and it's a great group of guys here. I'm just focused on this season. If they want to sign me, that's great."

McPhee said: "That's next year. We're in this year right now."

And what a start to the year it's been for Backstrom, who has shown improvement at both ends of the rink and has been more assertive in the dressing room as he's gained a stronger command of the English language.

He began the season skating between the team's two best wingers, Ovechkin and Semin. Together, the trio terrorized opposing defenses. On his own, Backstrom racked up two goals and eight assists in the first four games, and for a brief time, sat alone atop the league's scoring list.

Coach Bruce Boudreau, however, broke up the line before the San Jose game in an effort to add more balance to the Capitals' top two lines. The past two games, Backstrom has instead centered Brooks Laich and Semin on the second line. In both games -- wins over San Jose and Nashville -- Backstrom's line has been matched up against the other team's top offensive players, a move that shows Boudreau's confidence in Backstrom's ability to be responsible in his own end.

"It's not disappointing," Backstrom said of being dropped to the second line. "It's great to play with Ovie, of course. But right now I'm playing with two other great players and the team is winning."

'He's got a toughness'

His improved play in the defensive end has also gained the attention of Bengt Gustafsson, the former Capitals great and current coach of the Swedish national team.

"He's always had the offensive skill," Gustafsson said by phone from Sweden. "But now he's also developing some defensive skills, which is making him a complete player."

Gustafsson stopped short of naming Backstrom to Team Sweden -- rosters don't have to be submitted until December -- but it's not out of the question for Backstrom to be the first-line center on a team expected to contend for a gold medal.

"You don't always pick the best players; you pick the best team," Gustafsson said. "I really hope he stays healthy and he keeps playing the way he is, and if he does that, I'm confident he will be there, no doubt about it."

Staying healthy hasn't been an issue for Backstrom, who has yet to miss a single game.

"There's something that's ingrained in him," Boudreau said. "You don't think of it with Nick because he's a blond, blue-eyed, Swedish, good-looking young man. But he's got a toughness that belies all that, a toughness that coaches just love. He's not going to fight, but he's tough. I saw him last year where he could barely walk, but he was playing."

Another connection

Although he's second on the team in points and in ice time, Backstrom is first in highlight-reel passes. One does not need to wait long to be reminded of his best skill.

His most memorable how-did-he-do-that pass came in the Capitals' biggest win, a 4-1 decision over San Jose last week. With Washington enjoying a five-on-three power play, Backstrom threaded a cross-ice pass through Sharks goaltender Evgeni Nabokov and Laich right onto Semin's stick on the other side of the net.

"I know Sidney Crosby is an incredible passer," Boudreau said. "But Nicky makes those passes. I see them every day. That pass was for Semin. And to put it on his stick, wow. He's one of the very few people who can make saucer passes that land flat."

Defenseman Mike Green added: "It's like [Peter] Forsberg back in the day. Guys emphasize making hard passes. He doesn't need to, because he knows where guys are going to be."

Backstrom's game is still evolving, though, and there are two areas where he must improve to become a complete player: faceoffs and shots on net.

He ranks fifth on the team among centers who have taken at least 30 draws, winning only 43.7 percent of them. Asked if he is sometimes simply out-muscled by stronger and more physically mature players, Backstrom smiled and said: "I have to keep working on it. Hopefully I can be smarter than them."

When it comes to shooting, Backstrom often seems more interested in setting up a goal than scoring one himself. His 16 shots rank sixth on the team and are about a fourth of the 61 Ovechkin has taken.

"I know I have to shoot more," he said, before adding after a pause, but "I know I have other guys who shoot it better than me."

One of those other guys is Ovechkin, who leads the league with nine goals and, on most days, is the player who gets most of the media attention in the Capitals' locker room. But the morning after Backstrom notched his second three-point game of the young season against Toronto, reporters gathered around his stall.

Ovechkin, never one to pass up the chance to rib his friend, walked in and began singing Lupe Fiasco's "Superstar" in his thick Russian accent.

"If you are who you say you are," Ovechkin sang, altering the lyrics, "a Backie-star."

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