Wander into the Washington Capitals dressing room and ask about the watch Nicklas Backstrom received from Alex Ovechkin after the latter reached 500 goals and you won’t get a word about make or model. The Swede, whose years of deft passes are a major part of Ovechkin’s milestone, considers that personal info—and for him to dish words like he does pucks, the circumstances have to be right. But should one of his Caps teammates approach him and inquire about anything from on-ice systems to where the team should go to let loose, expect the unvarnished truth. “He’s not shy,” says Leif Boork, who coached Backstrom in Sweden. “He’s not shy at all. So don’t let yourself be fooled by the way he looks or acts.”
It’s easy to be duped into perceiving Backstrom as a guy who would never ruffle a feather. He’s the anti-Ovie in terms of attention-seeking and seems to be the only person in his orbit completely unbothered by the fact that he doesn’t receive full credit for the breadth of his abilities. His suggestions about where the Caps should go for a good time are always followed by: “But I’ll do whatever the boys want.”
And so many people genuinely like this guy that it’s hard to imagine he’s ever said a bad word about anybody. What you’re really looking at is a person with stockpiled credibility who’s more than happy to speak his mind when so inclined. For those who see him up close, it doesn’t take long to realize that this is a player whose insight you want. His varied contributions are a huge reason why Washington—no, for real this time—is a contender to win its first-ever Stanley Cup. Like Ovechkin, Backstrom has grown up with the Capitals, and just as the two long-standing stars have matured, the team as a whole is finally equipped to handle whatever gets thrown its way.
Watch Backstrom enough and, eventually, every part of the mosaic begins to sparkle. See him nightly and those deceptive first steps, the way he’ll pass the puck then quickly tie up an opponent’s stick, or the way he routinely emerges from the corner with what he came for, become things that cannot be missed. But many people aren’t watching the Capitals regularly, and absorbing all that nuance can require a trained eye or, at the very least, one that isn’t fixated on Backstrom’s supernova of a linemate.
Now in his ninth NHL campaign, the 28-year-old has always remained squarely in the conversation for most underappreciated player in the league. The past couple of seasons have seen significant change in Washington, and the new guys—upon seeing Backstrom up close—marvel at what he brings. “I knew he was good. I had no idea he was that good,” says Barry Trotz, now in his second year behind the Capitals bench. “His hockey IQ is off the charts. His ability to handle both sides of the puck correctly and effectively is the best I’ve ever had. I’ve had a lot of good players, but he’s the best at that complete package.”
Before an off-season trade brought him to D.C. in the summer, T.J. Oshie played on St. Louis Blues teams that perennially landed at or near the top of the NHL standings. The right-winger has kept some pretty heady company during his career, but you get the sense things have gone to another level playing on a line with Backstrom. “There are a lot of really, really small plays around the ice that [make] the game so much easier for me and Ovie,” says Oshie.
That’s why pure hockey minds hold Backstrom in as high regard as do the fantasy players drawn to the guy who, since 2007–08, when he broke into the NHL, has more helpers than anybody save Henrik Sedin and Joe Thornton. And while a playmaker by nature—he’s drawn an assist on 45.3 percent of Ovechkin’s goals since they started taking the ice together—Backstrom also keeps foes guessing. “Pass, pass, pass, then all of a sudden, he’s ripping a shot,” says defenceman Mike Weber, who could stop worrying about Backstrom after he was dealt from Buffalo to Washington.
The subtlety Oshie referred to, especially in the defensive zone, often goes unnoticed by passive observers who don’t realize Backstrom is very much a cerebral two-way force in the mould of vintage Henrik Zetterberg or Pavel Datsyuk. When he follows somebody into the corner, his mind reads the situation and synthesizes information like a pilot landing a plane. Instead of assessing which way and how hard the wind is blowing, Backstrom will identify whether somebody is a left- or right-hand shot, then scan for that player’s best outlet option. He’s never going to run you through the boards, but he’ll break the right way with astonishing frequency, plucking the puck before it gets where it was intended to go. Then he’s in control—and if how he got there is lost on a lot of people, so be it. “I don’t really care about that,” Backstrom says. “I don’t waste energy on it.”
There was a time, in his pre-draft days, when people wondered if Backstrom was devoting enough energy to getting himself in peak form. Though he wound up being selected fourth overall as a late 1987 birthday at the 2006 draft, Backstrom wasn’t viewed as a can’t-miss commodity in his middle-teen years. “I was pretty short,” he says.
But even when that changed—he’s six-foot-one now—whispers about baby fat lingered. Boork had already heard them when, in 2005, he took over as coach of Brynas, the Gavle-based club in Sweden’s top league. Backstrom had played 19 games with the team the season prior and was about to begin his first full campaign with them—essentially his hometown club—still a couple of months shy of his 18th birthday. Whatever questions Boork had about conditioning dried up once he saw Backstrom on the ice. “My first impression was that this guy, he’s the new Peter Forsberg,” says Boork, who’d coached a young Forsberg for a short time more than a decade earlier. “He saw the play, he read the play. His skating was not extremely good, but he was mentally tough.”
That fortitude is a family trait. Backstrom’s mom, Catrin, was an elite handball player. His dad, Anders, was a six-foot-three, no-nonsense defenceman during a 10-year career spent entirely with Brynas. Anders was still with the club as a board member when his younger son joined Brynas (the older one, Kristoffer, is also a defenceman and plays in second-tier European leagues). At the time, Mikael Sundlov served as Brynas’s GM, and most of his hardest conversations about the squad were conducted with Anders. Sundlov, a former goalie who spent one season playing with Backstrom’s dad, knows the entire family very well and always appreciated the candour he got from Anders. “When he was saying it was good, it was good,” Sundlov says.
Backstrom isn’t a carbon copy of his father—Anders is a bit more of a traditional, outspoken leader—but the two certainly share an affinity for being direct. “Even when he was young, he was strong-minded,” Boork says of Backstrom. “If it wasn’t working, or he had something to ask, he would just ask that question.”
Boork’s Forsberg comparison crumbles if you take into account how physical “Foppa” became, but it’s really what’s going on upstairs and the steely resolve both players displayed that stuck with the coach. “He challenges [opponents] with his mind and self-confidence,” Boork says. “He felt comfortable out there [as a teen playing against men]. That was the same feeling I had when I had Peter.”
Trotz briefly coached Forsberg, too, though it was late in the Swede’s career, when injuries had taken a debilitating toll. That 2006–07 season saw Trotz’s then team, the Nashville Predators, bounced in the first round of the post-season. Like Nashville—which fired Trotz in 2014—Washington has never been able to parlay regular-season success into something they can brag about forever. Since losing the 1998 Stanley Cup Final to the Detroit Red Wings, the Caps have failed to advance past the second round. Washington has iced some deadly teams since Backstrom’s rookie season, but has rarely looked like a fully formed outfit. “We were winning games 6–4, 5–4,” says defenceman Karl Alzner. “You know there’s something wrong there.”
Some would suggest the way Washington, as a whole, used to conduct itself wasn’t conducive to reaching lofty goals. The players were a little too quick to savour wins, letting dressing-room celebrations—complete with disco ball—spill into the night. There has also been a sense that, at times, enthusiastic owner Ted Leonsis got a little too hands-on with the hockey department. “I think Ted has pulled back a bit to let those guys do their jobs,” says a source with knowledge of the situation.
The Capitals remain a loose, light gang, albeit one that, in addition to taking aim at a franchise record for points in a season, has the best goal differential in the league by a country mile, a stat aided by Trotz’s strong systems and the emergence of Braden Holtby as one of the top ’tenders in the game. Just think of the Caps as a player who, at 23, got by on high-end talent but has, nearing his 30th birthday, learned the value of a more balanced approach. “We have fun on and off the ice, but we’re still doing all the right things,” says Alzner.
Striking the right balance has never been an issue for Backstrom, who hasn’t missed a beat this year following off-season hip surgery. Even when he’s in the throes of the schedule, Backstrom has found it a little easier to set job stress aside since his daughter, Haley, who’s now two and a half years old, was born. “Before, I’d be stuck with hockey 24/7, and now it’s nice to get home after practice and think about something else,” he says. “Mentally, it’s really good.”
Depending on what kind of personality she adopts, perhaps one day people will speak of Haley the way they do her more-than-meets-the-eye father. In Sweden, they have an expression for it. “We say, ‘He has a fox behind his ear,’” Boork says.
Couple that with the tricks up his sleeve, and Washington may finally have its winner.