The first rule of talking to Nicklas Backstrom is to never ask about Nicklas Backstrom, because the answers he provides to such questions are never what you are seeking.
Sure, he will call the Capitals’ 2014-15 season “a step in the right direction” and juxtapose the optimistic feeling of this breakdown day with the sullen morass of years past. He will credit the new coaching staff for installing a successful system, and his teammates for sticking together through the growing pains. He will insist the Capitals deserved better than a second-round, Game 7 exit in overtime, and lament the cruel nature of the business, which will assuredly show some of his close friends the exit into unrestricted free agency.
But ask where Backstrom hopes to personally improve this offseason, which aspects of his game he feels need to strengthen, and the 27-year-old Swede shutters up.
“Everywhere,” he said. “All over the ice. I know, I’m really boring. But I’m just being honest.”
So how to evaluate someone’s season without the input of that someone himself? Numbers seem a reasonable place to start. For the first time in his career, Backstrom led the NHL with 60 assists. His 78 points ranked sixth, his 1.96 points-per-60 minutes at even strength led the Capitals and 53.9 percent shot-attempt rate graded second on the team, his best personal total since 2010-11.
He recorded Washington’s only hat trick of the season, against current Eastern Conference finalist Tampa Bay on Dec. 13 at home. He moved into first place on the Capitals’ all-time assists list, passing both Alex Ovechkin and Michal Pivonka with two on March 15 against Boston. On the same day he skated in his 500th career NHL game, he logged his 500th career NHL point, a milestone only five active players have reached faster. He did not, however, earn his first All-Star Game appearance.
Coach Barry Trotz began banging the drum for Backstrom almost immediately upon his arrival, calling the alternate captain his best all-around player and, on more than several occasions, expressing shock that Backstrom never received Selke Trophy consideration. And so the perception reached a tipping point this season, around the time Backstrom remained in contention for the NHL’s points lead, when the narrative hammered home his under-the-radar status. In other words, he started receiving attention for not receiving attention.
“I’m astonished that he doesn’t get a lot more recognition,” Trotz said in February. “If you ask him, he’ll just say, ‘I’m doing my job, you want me to produce, I do with the players I’m out there with.’ That’s probably how he approaches everything. He’s a hell of a player.”
“What doesn’t he do well?” Trotz said in March. “Not a whole lot. He’s one of those guys that’s so under-the-radar, he’s so efficient that sometimes you wonder, he just blends in, then he gets the puck and good things happen … He’s very efficient and very good. He’s quietly one of the leaders of our hockey team that doesn’t get a lot of praise.”
But Backstrom was standing here, behind a dais at the Capitals’ practice facility, instead of down in Florida preparing to face the Lightning in the conference finals, so all the praise and regular-season success that preceded this moment paled to the bitterness of another early exit. For the fifth time in his career, the Capitals had lost in a winner-take-all scenario. For the fourth time, they had assumed a two-game series lead then squandered it. He had not been injured during the playoffs, Backstrom said, and notched the winning goal in Game 4 against the Islanders, but he only managed two points over the final 10 games – both secondary assists.
Still, it sure beat the feeling of 2013-14, when the Capitals dispersed in mid-April, an offseason of upheaval ahead of them.
“Honestly it’s hard to say, it’s tough maybe for people to believe that it’s a step in the right direction when you lose Game 7, second round,” Backstrom said. “But I mean, I feel like we’ve been better and hopefully we can build off this.
“Maybe before it was no hope. But there’s hope. No, but I mean, I think overall, from the coaching staff to all the players, good system and really playing the way we should. It’s not going to be easy to play in the playoffs, but the way we play, I think it’s a lot better than previous years.”
Next season, Backstrom may return to Arlington to find familiar faces gone from the locker room, including defenseman Mike Green, an unrestricted free agent whom Backstrom counts among his oldest and closest friends. It will be his ninth in the NHL, all with the Capitals, over halfway to the end of his decade-long contract worth $6.7 million per season. None have ended beyond the second round, and this was the sorest spot of all.
So the time had come again for one more try, one more chance at introspection before summer vacation.
“You can never be satisfied when you lose,” he said. “But, I mean, I thought it was alright but I can do better.”