When Nicklas Backstrom walks by the NHL point-scoring leader board in the players’ lounge of the Washington Capitals’ practice facility, he keeps seeing a familiar name near the top: Nicklas Backstrom.
“I’ve seen it, but I don’t really pay too much attention to it,” Backstrom said.
Nevertheless, it’s a reminder of the season he’s having and one of the major reasons players and pundits in and around the league are paying more attention to the Swedish center than ever before. With 17 goals and 44 assists in 58 games, Backstrom’s 61 points place him fourth in the league behind Edmonton’s Connor McDavid, Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and San Jose’s Brent Burns, and he’s played fewer games than McDavid and Burns. After a career-long narrative of being underrated and overlooked, Backstrom’s production could make this the year he garners more national appreciation.
The test: If McDavid, Crosby and Burns are considered the favorites for the Hart Memorial Trophy, awarded to the player deemed the NHL’s most valuable, then shouldn’t Backstrom, the top center on the league’s top team, at least be in the conversation?
“He’s easily one of the most underrated players, but easily one of the best players,” Detroit Coach Jeff Blashill said earlier this month.
“He’s like the keys to the engine, and everyone works around that,” Capitals forward Justin Williams said. “I think Hart for sure, but at the very least, the Selke” as the league’s best two-way forward.
“If I’m in the mix, I’m in the mix,” Backstrom said. “If not, I’m not going to be mad about it.”
Backstrom has never finished higher than ninth in Hart Trophy voting, and that was in 2009-10, when his 101-point season garnered him two fourth-place votes and four fifth-place votes. The Capitals won the Presidents’ Trophy with the best regular season record that year, and Alex Ovechkin finished second to Henrik Sedin as the league MVP.
The award is voted on by members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, and in an unscientific straw poll of 40 media members across the NHL, 78 percent said they would vote Backstrom in the top five if the vote were held today. Eighteen percent said he would be in their top three, though he didn’t receive any first-place votes.
Backstrom was surprised by those results. For Capitals Coach Barry Trotz, the recognition is overdue. He’s wanted Backstrom to receive this kind of acclaim for three years, campaigning for him to be selected to his first All-Star Game last year. Asked if Backstrom has a case for this year’s Hart Trophy, Trotz outlined what the criteria for the award should be.
“You always look at teams having a good year, and we’re having a good year,” Trotz said. “Who’s your top player, and who’s the guy that the coach relies on all the time in all key situations? Who’s the guy that seems to be driving the group this year? A lot of that goes on Backy. You see that in goals and assists. You see that in important minutes and important situations. He’s got a real good line, but at the same time, someone’s got to get the puck to them. Someone’s got to play a 200-foot game, and he does all of that.
“I’ve been banging his drum and standing on the soapbox for everybody to take note. And he deserves it. He will run away from you guys and the attention. He doesn’t want it, but he deserves it. He should be in consideration.”
Backstrom has trouble understanding why it matters so much to Trotz that he get more recognition. “Isn’t that a good thing, that people don’t know about me?” Backstrom said. He’s on pace for an 86-point season, which would be his best since he was a 22-year-old in the 2009-10 campaign. Because the team has played so well – a 39-12-7 record for 85 points – Backstrom said he’s felt his own confidence rise.
If Backstrom continues his scoring pace of more than a point per game, he’ll likely finish with more votes than ever before, but he’s a long shot to win because of the strength of the candidates in front of him. On Feb. 1, the oddsmakers at Bovada.LV didn’t even have Backstrom on the board to win the Hart Trophy.
That Backstrom plays in all situations and is the leading scorer on a Washington team that’s atop the point standings helps his case if the award is interpreted in the strictest sense as the player deemed most valuable. But McDavid has 20 goals and 47 assists in 59 games and could have the Oilers in the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade. Crosby has 32 goals and 33 assists in just 52 games, and Burns is posting incredible scoring numbers for a defenseman with 27 goals and 37 assists.
TSN Hockey Insider Bob McKenzie said the cases for McDavid, Crosby and Burns “are so overwhelmingly better than everybody else’s” that any other candidates pale in comparison. Minnesota goaltender Devan Dubnyk, who leads the league in wins (32), goals-against average (1.97) and save percentage (.934), should also get a significant number of votes for backstopping the Wild to the Western Conference’s best record thus far.
McKenzie does an annual coaches poll, and one Eastern Conference coach voted for Backstrom as the league’s best player. McKenzie praised Backstrom and said he even voted him in the top three on his Selke ballot last season, but he was somewhat taken aback to hear that coach consider Backstrom the league’s best player this season.
“I don’t think he’s underrated anymore,” McKenzie said. “He’s not as flashy as McDavid, Crosby and Burns, but he’s very effective.”