But it’s been Backstrom’s offense that’s been limited lately, as he has struggled to strike a balance between his detailed defensive play and being one of the Capitals’ main sources of offense. He hasn’t recorded a point in seven games, a career-long drought for him, and his linemate, T.J. Oshie, hasn’t scored in the past eight games.
“I realize that I’ve got to be better and I’ve got to create more chances, produce and be one of the leading guys on the team,” Backstrom said. “I’ve just got to find a way.”
In-game deployment is partially to blame. As the Capitals’ forward depth has eroded because of injuries and roster turnover, Backstrom hasn’t had as many shifts start in the offensive zone this year — 24.55 percent, down from 32.97 percent last season, according to the NHL statistical site Corsica. Over the past seven games Backstrom’s played in, he has taken just 23 offensive-zone faceoffs in five-on-five situations, with 40 of his faceoffs coming in the defensive zone, according to Natural Stat Trick, representative of just how much Coach Barry Trotz trusts Backstrom when the team is in its own end.
“I don’t think I have to tell you what I think of Nicklas Backstrom,” Trotz said. “He’s one of the best two-way centermen in the National Hockey League, and he should be a Selke [Trophy] candidate every year. Right now, he’s had tough matchups; we’ve been on the road, so I can’t dictate all of that. He’s had some of those tougher matchups, and he’s done a terrific job with that. …
“Trust me, if there’s one player I don’t have to worry a whole heck of a lot about, it’s Nick Backstrom. Nick Backstrom brings a pretty good game every night, and I don’t judge his game on goals and assists. He’s probably the last player I have to worry about.”
Trotz said it’ll be easier for him to give Backstrom’s line more offensive zone starts when the team is playing at home for the next two games. On the road, “people try to avoid certain matchups, so sometimes you start him there just to keep the other group off,” Trotz said.
Meanwhile, fellow top-six center Evgeny Kuznetsov has started 36.67 percent of his five-on-five shifts in the offensive zone. Perhaps that’s why Trotz has yet to reunite Backstrom and captain Alex Ovechkin, who have played the majority of their careers over the past decade on the same line. Ovechkin has been exclusively playing with Kuznetsov, while Backstrom has been paired with Oshie.
“Just not ready for it,” Trotz said.
Backstrom’s production has also been hurt by the Capitals’ slumping power play, which has scored two goals in six home games and has managed just one five-on-four goal since Oct. 13. In an effort to spark Backstrom and Oshie’s even-strength production, Trotz inserted Chandler Stephenson as the left wing on their line after he scored one goal and three assists in the seven games since he was recalled from the American Hockey League. Backstrom added that because Stephenson has played center for the majority of his career, it won’t matter who is playing low between the two of them in the defensive zone, potentially easing some of Backstrom’s responsibilities there.
“I think we’ve got to be a little grittier, go to the net a little bit more, get those secondary chances, work their goalie a little bit better,” Backstrom said. “It’s been a lot of outside shots from the blue line and stuff. We’ve got to screen the goalie and hope for the rebounds. That’s how you’ve got to get started. … I think for us it’s just to find that balance to play good defensively and try to score and create chances.”
When the Capitals host the Pittsburgh Penguins on Friday night, Backstrom will almost certainly be going head-to-head with top center Sidney Crosby. His leading objective is to contain Crosby, but Backstrom knows the Capitals are counting on him in other ways, too.
“Hopefully it gives us a chance to win,” Backstrom said. “That’s priority No. 1. But if it’s 0-0, we’re still kind of mad as a line. We want to win that match. It would be nice if we could score against them.”
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