Nicklas Backstrom pumped the brakes, and the sudden stop of momentum sent the New York Rangers defender trailing him stumbling into the wall. A second defender prevented Backstrom from passing the puck with his forehand, so Backstrom quickly spun and backhanded a saucer pass backdoor to Washington Capitals defenseman Tom Poti.
“That’s probably my favorite,” Backstrom said of the assist.
With Backstrom three assists from 500, the irony is that his pass to Poti on April 20, 2009, doesn’t even count in the total because it came in the playoffs. But his calm under pressure in that situation displays why Backstrom has been an elite distributor for the Capitals over more than nine seasons, now approaching the significant milestone.
When Backstrom reaches 500 assists, he’ll be both the first player in franchise history and the first from the 2006 NHL draft to hit that mark. He’ll also become the 10th Swedish-born player to get there. His assists have helped many of his teammates reach milestones, so the Capitals are too happy to celebrate their top center when he gets his own.
“Nick is as slick as anybody with the puck,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said. “He’s got great patience and really great deception in his game. His pulse rate is very low when it comes to panic level, especially in tight quarters. And then he’s accurate. He’s smart and he understands what the next move is. He’s like a chess player — he’s making a move now in order to create another move or find someone open. He’s got that great ability, that vision and that sense of awareness that is elite.”
Trotz said Backstrom’s “panic circle is very tight,” so as defenders swarm him, his calm gives him an extra second with the puck to open up a lane. Backstrom said that poise is central to his philosophy on hockey, as before he makes a pass, he wants to draw an opponent to him to open up more ice for his teammate. It’s good in theory, but few players are precise enough to be able to hold on to the puck that long without being pressured into an errant move.
“He just sees things that a lot of players don’t have the ability to, or the guts to,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said.
“As a teammate, he’s thinking about you when he’s going to make that play,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “He’s going to make sure he can get you as open as possible, and then deliver you the puck. If he gives it to you, then he’s going to try and tie up another guy’s stick, so you have a little bit more freedom to do something.”
Niskanen said he’s watched Backstrom be just as laid back when playing ping-pong in the locker room. “He’s got that kind of personality, and a lot of talent obviously. And I don’t know which breeds which,” Niskanen said. Andre Burakovsky said that when they’ve played golf together, Burakovsky is the type to break a golf club or two while Backstrom shrugs.
“I’m always like that, but inside my body, I’m fired up,” Backstrom said.
“If you talk to Nick, he’s always pretty cerebral and low maintenance,” Trotz said. “He’s not bouncing off the walls. He’s pretty calm. I think that’s part of his personality, and then his hockey IQ is off the charts when it comes to the game.”
Anders Backstrom, Nicklas’s father, said his son was an “easy” kid. Anders often encouraged him to shoot more, but he was a pass-first player when he was growing up, too. It’s typically 1 a.m. in Sweden when the puck drops for Capitals games on the East Coast, but Anders said he’s watched all but five to 10 of Nicklas’s games in his career. “I can’t sleep in the night when I know he’s playing,” Anders said. His favorite assist of his son’s was a pass behind his back to Mike Knuble against the Rangers.
As Alex Ovechkin’s center for the majority of his career, Backstrom has assisted on 201 of Ovechkin’s 442 goals since Backstrom’s first season in 2007-08.
“I really liked him a lot,” said Minnesota Wild Coach Bruce Boudreau, a former Capitals coach. “He could pass the puck both backhand and forehand equally as well. He came to play every night. I can’t say enough. If he has 500 assists now, he’s going to be the kind of guy like [San Jose center] Joe Thornton and get over 1,000 assists. His game isn’t going to change for another 10 years.”
Ask any of the Capitals about Backstrom, and then pull up a chair as they praise his intelligence, his attention to detail and a skill that’s not appreciated enough outside of Washington’s locker room. Trotz campaigned for him to get his first all-star nod last season, and he has often ranted about how Backstrom’s defensive ability is underrated. Backstrom finished 12th in voting for the Selke Trophy, which goes to the top defensive forward, and that he wasn’t in the top five frustrated Trotz.
“He doesn’t get a lot of fanfare, and he doesn’t want a lot of fanfare,” Trotz said. “But for him to reach that mark [of 500 assists], there’s some pretty exceptional players who have made that mark and passed that mark, and there’s exceptional players who haven’t reached that mark. He’s going to be going into an elite class there. . . . I’m really happy for him because I think he’s an exceptional talent.”
As if on cue, Backstrom shrugged it off.
“I haven’t thought about it now, but we’ll see when it happens,” Backstrom said. “I feel like I’m in the middle of my career, and maybe when I retire, I’ll look back at it as a nice memory, but I haven’t really thought about it, what it would mean to me right now. But it’s been a lot of years here, too, and I’ve played with a lot of good players.”
They’d argue it was the other way around.