Ask your average hockey fan to name a player on the Washington Capitals, and 99 times out of 100 the answer would be Alexander Ovechkin. But what about Nicklas Backstrom? They guy who serves up a lot of assists to Ovechkin. Backstrom has played in the shadow of Alex the Great throughout his whole NHL career, and he might very well be the most underrated player in the NHL.
At the time of this writing, Backstrom is fourth in scoring in the league with 54 points (19 goals and 35 assists) in 51 games. That’s five points more that what Ovechkin has at the moment (Ovi is 10th with 49 points). The 27 year-old Swede came through the ranks of his hometown club Brynas before he was drafted by the Capitals in 2006 (4th overall). He had 40 points in 45 games as a 19-year old in the SHL during the 2006/2007 season, and in his rookie year with the Caps he racked up 69 points in 82 games. He was a Calder Trophy finalist but lost in the end to Patrick Kane.
Bäckis, as he’s called back in Sweden, has been a top centerman for many years now and there’s no doubt that even without Alex Ovechkin that he would be a number one center for most teams in the league. There’s often a lot of talk about that he’s a product of Ovechkin, and that might have been the case early in his NHL career, but he matured and developed into this world-class center that now serves up beautiful and smart passes to Ovechkin. Sure, it helps that Ovi is one of the best goal scorers in the world, but without Backstrom he would not have had the same scoring record. Backstrom has great hockey-IQ and his ability to read the game and find his teammates is just incredible. Not many players possess that level of play-making abilities.
When Backstrom missed a good part of the 2011/2012 season with a concussion, Ovechkin was, compared to previous seasons, struggling and ended up with the lowest point total in his time with the Capitals. That was no coincident, as Backstrom and Ovechkin has great chemistry together, and at times it reminds me of the telepathy vibes you get when watching the Sedin twins.
Backstrom has played in 546 NHL regular season games and has a total of 548 points, but yet we hardly hear anything about him in the media. Very few players in the modern game averages a point per game, only the elite players are capable of that and Backstrom has shown that he is that elite level player. He was definitely a shy young man from a small town in Sweden when he came over, so I can understand why he didn’t lit up the sports pages, but he has come a long way since then and even features in commercials.
Backstrom was in the media, but for all the wrong reasons during the Olympic Games in Sochi where he got caught in a drug test because his allergy meds contained too much pseudoephedrine. The levels were above WADA’s limits, but he never had any problem taking his meds in the US and never had a problem with the drug tests that the NHL conducts. He was suspended from playing in the gold-medal game against Canada, and didn’t receive his silver medal until after an investigation was done. The IOC came to the conclusion that he was to be awarded a medal and that he did not intend to enhance his performance, just treat his allergies.
It was a big blow for team Sweden, who had already lost Henrik Zetterberg to injury, and many people still think about what could have been if Backstrom and Zetterberg had been on the ice against Canada. In addition to the Olympic silver medal, Backstrom has a World Championship gold medal from 2006 and a bronze medal from the World U18 Championships in 2005.
He’s without a doubt one of the biggest Swedish stars in the NHL and gets a lot more press back home, but even then he’s still in the shadow of Ovechkin. He is the best player that no one is talking about. So, I would say that out of the elite players in the NHL, Backstrom is the most underrated. He might never be able to step out of Ovechkin’s shadow, but at least he should be recognized for his talent and production.