Top 25 under 25: Nicklas Backström
The word Parity has been oft-used this season to describe the state of the NHL. But I would say a better word is Resurgence. The perenially good teams – like Detroit – are still playing great hockey; the horrendous teams of yore – even the LA Kings – are playing stronger hockey than ever before. Just look at Chicago, Phoenix, and Washington.
What’s particularly special about this season is the rookies who make those resurgent teams worth watching. Everyone mentions Chicago’s Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews or Phoenix’s Peter Mueller as Calder candidates. But I think Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom just may be the best. Even if he did score on his own goaltender to give Pittsburgh the win.
The stats are impressive. 11 goals and 47 assists for a +6 rating in 69 games for the Capitals. Backstrom was December’s Rookie of the Month and garnered one of 16 spots on the Young Stars team at the All-Star game. As of Thursday, he leads all NHL rookies in assists and points; he ranks 13th overall in the NHL in assists. He’s had three 4-point nights this season, including back-to-back 4 assist performances – an NHL first by a rookie. All this at age 20.
To understand Backstrom, however, requires seeing him in action on the ice. The calm ease with which he can maneuver through and around defensemen, the beautiful passing abilities, and his capacity to see plays on the ice has drawn comparisons to fellow Swede Peter Forsberg. He doesn’t assert himself physically often, but he doesn’t need to with Alex Ovechkin throwing his weight around on the wing.
What I find most impressive about Backstrom is his maturity. He could have signed a deal with Washington last season, but opted to spend another year developing in the Swedish Elite League. On the ice Backstrom always appears cool and calm with the puck, making smart decisions beyond his years. It should be exciting to see the Backstrom-Ovechkin pairing grow together over the next few seasons.
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