Backstrom has gotten even better

Nicklas Backstrom's skill with the puck has been a huge benefit for scoring machine Alex Ovechkin. Greg Fiume/NHLI/Getty Images

Even in his greatness, there is something perpetually understated about Nicklas Backstrom.

Cool? Oh, yes. Definitely. But not in that kind of "hip-cool-look-at-me" kind of way. More of a quiet, "I-don't-really-care-if-you-notice-me" kind of cool.

Subtle distinction? Maybe.

Is it the kind of distinction that separates playoff disappointment from Stanley Cup glory? Washington Capitals fans too used to the former and thirsting for the latter are hoping that is the case.

One thing we can say with certainty is that Backstrom has cool in his blood.

Chatting with both Backstrom and his father, Anders, during the Washington Capitals' fathers' trip, there is something coolly elegant about Anders Backstrom. It's that same quiet, reserved way that has marked his son's personality since Nicklas came into the league in 2007.

Anders is a former Swedish elite league player who was drafted by the New York Rangers and whose family has a property development business in Sweden. He explains that everyone in the Backstrom family takes a long time to make a decision. The Backstroms analyze things from different angles, poke, prod, consider. Then they act.

"Then when we do it, we do it quick," Anders added with a laugh.

If you've ever watched Nicklas Backstrom handle the puck, you are likely nodding your head and saying "exactly."

"I think he's the quietest superstar in the league. I've said that exact line for years," teammate Brooks Laich told ESPN.com recently. "The guy he plays with, No. 8 [Alex Ovechkin], he gets the headlines, he's the rock star, right? Nicky's the guy that keeps the band together.

"Nicky's the beat of the band. He's so good all over the ice he's our quarterback. The best thing about Nick is that every player that he plays with he makes them better, and I think that's the true testament to a great player is they make everybody else on the ice better, and he does that and it's with intelligence, it's with positioning," Laich explained.

"Obviously everybody knows about his elite skill level, the hands, the vision, but the way he sees the game and understands the game, and his other talent is understanding his teammates, what they want, where they want the puck, when they want the puck, do I have to give it to them now or should I hold it longer with this guy and give it to him when he's open? Just an elite level of intelligence. Great teammate. Hard worker. The quietest superstar in the National Hockey League."

But make no mistake, this is not the old Nicklas Backstrom, just as these are not (at least right now) the old Washington Capitals. For all his consistency -- as of Thursday morning, he ranks third in the league (behind Henrik Sedin and Joe Thornton) with 416 assists since he entered the league -- there is something vital and different about Backstrom's play this season.

As of Thursday morning, Backstrom is tied with Ovechkin for the NHL scoring lead with 67 points, putting Backstrom in the running for his first scoring title. As for his Capitals, this might be the most playoff-ready of any of the Caps teams that have promised so much but delivered so little come playoff time over the years.

"For me, I was scared of him before and I'm probably more scared of his game now," former Pittsburgh head coach Dan Bylsma told ESPN.com this week. "He has such a great ability to hold on to the puck, manufacture time, read the play and execute with the puck, that it allows the other players on his line to freelance, to not be in the same spot all the time.

"They can go to different areas, they can work to get open away from the puck."

He likens Backstrom's gifts with the puck to those possessed by Hall of Famer (and former Caps coach) Adam Oates, who's considered one of the greatest playmakers of all time.

"It's an unbelievable asset that he has. I don't want to say it's sleight of hand," added Bylsma, who has been doing some national broadcast analysis while he bides his time waiting for another head-coaching gig. "To me, he's the best player on the half wall, he's the best half-wall distributor."

As for the breadth of Backstrom's game, he is perhaps more of a force now than ever at both ends of the ice.

"He covers up for a lot of mistakes. He's sound. Good, intelligent defensively, he covers up for a lot," Bylsma said.

"He's good," the former coach of the year added. "He's real good."

Capitals head coach Barry Trotz saw Backstrom and the Caps from afar during his long tenure as head coach of the Nashville Predators. Since coming to Washington in a great offseason of change -- one that also saw longtime GM George McPhee dismissed in favor of longtime Caps executive Brian MacLellan -- Trotz has learned there is much more than meets the eye when it comes to the team's top center.

Trotz admits he thought Backstrom was a player who could be taken off his game, disrupted. And maybe that was so in the past. Not now, though.

"I didn't realize there was a bite to Nick Backstrom," Trotz told ESPN.com. "He actually excels when you try and sort of get under his skin. It sort of lights his fire a little bit. That's probably the biggest thing that surprised me. And then realizing how good he is and how important he is to this team.

"I just think he is, to me, one of the best all-around forwards I've ever dealt with."

Former Capitals player Alan May, who provides broadcast analysis for the Capitals, agrees that the current version of Backstrom is much more textured.

"You just said it. This year is the very first time I've seen him have snarl or bite to the game. He doesn't take anything from anyone anymore," May said. "You see how tough he is finishing hits. He's just so much more physical on the puck."

That things are different in Washington is a given. You watch the Capitals, and you listen to opposing coaches, scouts and GMs who describe how much more difficult they are to play against. The "why" of that evolution is more complex, again, perhaps more subtle. We go back to our conversation with both Backstroms and the common theme of "Where did the time go?"

"It's amazing to me that this is Nick's eighth year. It feels like it should maybe be his second or something like that. So the time has passed very fast," Anders said while watching his son at a recent morning skate.

Nicklas Backstrom

Nicklas Backstrom

#19 C
Washington Capitals

2015 STATS

  • GM65
  • G18

  • A49

  • PTS67

  • +/-5

  • PIM40

Nicklas feels that sense of time having slipped through his fingers, too, that urgency to seize the moment.

"If you look at it, time flies by pretty quick. I'm in my eighth season now. Felt like I got here yesterday, so time flies. You've got to make sure you do the best with it and be ready every night. Right now we're playing better overall I think, so if we can keep improving I think that's great," Backstrom said.

On a personal level, Backstrom is a father now and he is remembering the lessons his father taught him when he first put him on skates at 3 or 4 years old: Try your best and work hard.

If there is an element of time having passed too quickly -- with less to show for it than anyone connected to the team had hoped for -- it is balanced perhaps by a communal growing up from a core of players that includes Backstrom, Laich, Ovechkin, Mike Green, John Carlson and Karl Alzner.

"I think when we all were younger we didn't know too much. I think we learned a little bit about our mistakes when we were done. I think you usually feel like everyone has developed, especially core guys that have been here a long time," Nicklas Backstrom explained.

"We want the same things," he said. "We're going for the same goals here and we want to win. That's something that's always back of our heads and I think that's really important to have. We have to set high goals."

Among the offseason changes were the additions of veteran defensemen Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen, who came over from Pittsburgh. Their leadership has been and will continue to be pivotal. But make no mistake, this is a team whose axis runs through two numbers: 8 and 19.

That No. 8 (Ovechkin) will garner most of the attention as he roars toward what could be another Rocket Richard Trophy for most goals, and possibly another run at the Hart Trophy as MVP, is of little concern to No. 19 (Backstrom), who will presumably continue to feed Ovechkin soft saucer passes from across the rink, which he will then blast to the back of opposing nets.

"Not really, actually," Backstrom said with a laugh. "I don't really care to be honest with you. People want to talk about Ovi or Orpie, Greener, that's the way it is. I don't really care because I get tons of recognition here in the locker room. That's all that matters. I think that's good enough for all of us."

Those are not empty words. Mention Backstrom around the Caps' locker room and his teammates rush to explain his importance, perhaps understanding that from the outside that import is perhaps overlooked or overshadowed. Countryman Marcus Johansson has benefited from Backstrom's tutelage on the ice and his friendship off the ice.

"He was very helpful. He knows his way around and he's I think the biggest thing he's such a leader on and off the ice. It's amazing. He means so much to this team. And to learn from him, I think, is one of the best ways," Johansson said. "I think it's a pretty good role model to have."

Likewise, the captain feels pretty good about Backstrom's role with the squad.

"He is definitely very important for us. For me and for this organization, basically. He's probably, like, top five centers in the league if not top three," Ovechkin told ESPN.com.

He should know. Of Ovechkin's league-leading 43 goals this season, Backstrom has assisted on 28. Since both started wearing Caps jerseys, Backstrom has assisted on 46 percent of Ovechkin's 367 goals.

"He's an all-around guy and that's a great chance for me to play with him," Ovechkin said.

As for being kind of the opposite of the Caps' captain in terms of personality, well, there is that.

"Yeah, he's a kind of shy guy to be honest with you. He's not, like, screaming around you know, do some crazy stuff. But definitely he's one of our leaders," Ovechkin said.

What all of this means in the grand hockey scheme will not be told for many weeks. The Eastern Conference is as wide-open as it has been in many years. For a Capitals team that has never won a championship and went to its only Cup final back in 1998, there is cautious optimism that maybe, just maybe, the subtle changes are enough.

Within the locker room there is the understanding that, changes or not, time keeps growing ever shorter for this group.

"I think we're first of all a great group of guys and I think we're all really tight with each other. It starts off there, I think," Backstrom said.

"I think to have a nice bond, and that you can see that on the ice, too, you play for each other more," Backstrom explained. "And obviously the coaching staff brought in a good system for us. We've been following that. Our work ethic is good and that's something we've got to try and keep doing. We can't take nights off. You've got to come ready to work every night."