The comparison Nicklas Backstrom has most commonly endured pretty much since he arrived on the acclaimed international prospect scene some five or six years ago has been with his countryman, Peter Forsberg. I confess, I never saw the basis for the comparison — until this past season.
During his first two seasons here I wondered about the young center’s conditioning, his upside as a goal-scorer, the quality of his shot (was it world-class?), his defensive game, and his acumen in the faceoff circle. I’d still like to see him become leaner and meaner in the weight room, but in 2009-10 Nicklas Backstrom fairly obliterated my early concerns. With 33 goals and 101 points he achieved consensus standing not just as one of the best young players in the world but as one of the best players period, of any age.
And what stood out to me the most this past hockey season about Backstrom was the striking resemblance he seemed to achieve with perhaps the best player ever to come out of Sweden. He made elite plays down low, welcoming all comers thick and mean in that space. But also: his identity as an elite playmaker isn’t contingent upon his centering Alexander Ovechkin. He can create scoring — goal-scoring — chances on his own, in very elite fashion. Just like Foppa.
This season I noticed especially a physical dimension added to his game. He seemed to welcome contact while playing the puck, and he seldom seemed to get knocked off the puck anywhere on the ice. His work in corners reminded me very much of Foppa. He appeared to be stronger on his skates today as well, to have a gear that he didn’t as a rookie.
And he’s just 22.
Yesterday’s announced signing is significant beyond its securing the talents of a world-class player for the Caps for the next decade. General Manager George McPhee highlighted what the deal meant to Caps’ fans: “It sends the right message to our fans that this franchise has outstanding young players ready to commit for the rest of their career.”
It sure does. And another such long-term deal will be needed for John Carlson in two years’ time. But Monday was a day to enjoy a first bit of good news in a good-news-challenged offseason.
Three seasons into his NHL career we already know that Nicklas Backstrom is the most gifted centerman ever to wear a Capitals’ sweater, and that should reasonable health follow him over the next 10 years, he’ll enjoy a designation as the most statistically accomplished Caps’ centerman ever. Backstrom will center Alexander Ovechkin through the 2019-20 NHL season, and with that as foundation, the Capitals can dream large.