When conversing with non-hockey fans about hockey, the same few names always come up in conversation. Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid, and Alex Ovechkin are the names that non-hockey fans usually associate with because these future hall of fame players dominate a majority of NHL publicity in their respected cities, including national advertising space across North America, because eh, why not promote the best?
However, there’s always one name that is hardly ever uttered from mouthes of hockey fans, even though he’s been producing at an elite level his whole career. I almost forgot to mention that he plays in the shadow of one of the best goal scorers of all-time; his name is Nicklas Backstrom.
Before the Capitals drafted Backstrom in 2006, he was touted as one of the most promising young players to come out of Sweden since Peter Forsberg. Backstrom proved that by becoming the number one center on Brynas’ roster in the SEL winning rookie of the year. In 2006-07 with Brynas, he tallied 12 goals and 28 assists for 40 points, and in back-to-back years, Backstrom put up seven points in six and seven games at the 2006 and 2007 World Junior Championships.
Backstrom was viewed as a player with tremendous offensive upside. His strong points included handling the power play as well as his playmaking capabilities and his puck protection. On draft day, a young Ovechkin called him to the stage. Now being the Robin to Washington’s Batman, he had a chance to prove himself at the next level, and he did not disappoint.
Once he began playing NHL calibre hockey, Backstrom has been one of the most reliable players in this current generation of NHL talent. The fourth overall pick did not disappoint in his first season, with 14 goals and 55 assists for 69 points in 82 games. This production landed him a spot in the NHL All-Rookie team in 2008. He has been one of the most consistent, reliable players in the NHL from that point onwards.
How is Backstrom Consistent?
In his 14 seasons with the Capitals, Backstrom has not had a season under 44 points, mind you, that season he only played 42 games due to the shortened lockout season in 2012-13.
The fact that Backstrom averages more assists than goals his whole career proves that he is an unselfish, versatile player able to control play and slow it down if need be, all while making near-impossible passes to open players. Standing 6-foot-1 and 206 pounds, it’s not easy to bump him off the puck. He’s a complete teammate able to set up players at will.
From a playoff standpoint, Backstrom has been effective. His most notable season was during the Capitals’ Stanley Cup Final run in 2017-18, where he put the team on his back, producing five goals and 18 assists for 23 points in 20 games. He’s also a player that has been reliable on the injury front as well. Besides offseason hip surgery in 2015, he has been present every year, playing over 75 games a season except for the lockout or COVID-19 shortened seasons.
In his career so far, he’s tallied 245 goals and 686 assists for 931 points in 960 games. Backstrom is undoubtedly a reliable player, but why isn’t he in the same spotlight with other current NHL all-stars?
Though Backstrom is currently ranked 12th in NHL active point leaders and has more total career points than players like Patrice Bergeron, Steven Stamkos, or Claude Giroux, why isn’t he marketed as much as them? There are a few factors that can contribute to this phenomenon.
He’s currently playing with one of the league’s flashiest players in Ovechkin. Ovechkin is a human highlight reel that has dazzled hockey fans since his start in the NHL and has been producing entertaining content for the NHL to advertise to increase viewership on television and social media. Not only Ovechkin but T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov also take some shine away from Backstrom.
You could then counter with, “Why do hockey fans know who Evgeni Malkin is though he’s playing behind arguably one of the best players of all-time in Sidney Crosby?” Well, to be quite blunt, it’s much harder to advertise assists than goals.
Your occasional fan stumbling on an NHL ad will have more trouble following the puck on a flashy assist than a dazzling goal. Malkin has also tallied nearly double the amount of goals as Backstrom and has more points all-time because of it. The duo has won multiple Stanley Cups together, creating a dynasty in Pittsburgh, all while revitalizing the hockey scene in their city.
All the other players I’ve mentioned before have scored more career goals than Backstrom. It also doesn’t help that while Bergeron, Giroux and Stamkos have been the usual number one option on their team for years, Backstrom has played second fiddle to Ovechkin his whole career. Backstrom was also named the most underrated player in 2018; 8.6 percent of players voted him as the most underrated player, the highest percentage of all players playing in the NHL.
Though Backstrom contributes to the stat line often, he isn’t a flashy player. He deserves consideration as an elite talent, which he is; the only problem is that he’s not as marketable as Ovechkin from a business standpoint. And his popularity takes a toll due to that. Though it isn’t, passing is viewed to the average fan as an underrated skill and isn’t considered as impressive as scoring.
Backstrom will be Backstrom, and the Capitals will stay the Capitals. They’ve been a naturally flashy team for a while now, and it won’t end anytime soon. He’ll remain the passing anchor for players to get set up around, and with Ovechkin, Oshie, and Kuznetsov in the mix, they will be the ones scoring the most. As for Backstrom, he will continue to stay behind the scenes, setting them up, all while silently racking the points in the process.
Co-Host of The Starting Rotation on CJLO 1690AM
Journalism at Concordia University