Era Adjusted: Capitals playmakers Nicklas Backstrom vs. Adam Oates


Washington Capitals' T.J. Oshie (77) celebrates his goal with teammate Nicklas Backstrom (19) during first period NHL hockey against the Ottawa Senators, in Ottawa on Saturday, January 7, 2017. (Fred Chartrand/CP)

“The Leafs and Capitals are playing this Saturday,” I thought to myself.

“Why don’t I write an Era Adjusted piece on Alexander Ove-“

No. Bad Steve. Bad.

I usually confess my (statistical) love for Alex Ovechkin in an article or video once a year, and while writing about the best era adjusted goal-scorers of all-time, Ovechkin’s name came up constantly.

Ovechkin, Ovechkin, Ovechkin.

Enough about Ovechkin. He’s not the only player on the Capitals, and he’s also not the only Washington player worthy of a look in an Era Adjusted post. Let’s talk about the often forgotten, always in the shadows, perennially underrated Robin to Ovechkin’s Batman: Nicklas Backstrom.

With that description, who would be a good comparison for Backstrom? It would have to be a skilled playmaker with way more assists than goals. Probably somebody who doesn’t get the props he deserves based on career numbers. Ideally this player would have ties to the Capitals. You know who I’m thinking?

Adam Oates. It’s appropriate that he has the same initials as Alex Ovechkin.

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Now, I realize Oates is a touchy subject for Caps fans. After all, his brief stint as their head coach wasn’t wonderful. Setting that aside and just focussing on Oates as a player, the comparison actually works. As a matter of fact, after I did some research, I was surprised at just how similar the two are.

First, Oates is 17th all-time in NHL scoring with 1,420 points. Yes, really. He’s ahead of guys like Doug Gilmour, Dale Hawerchuk, Jarri Kurri and Luc Robitaille. Ask your most hardcore, hockey-loving friends who the Top 20 scorers in NHL history are and see how many names Oates.

My guess is not many.

When adjusting for era, there isn’t a giant change in Oates’ numbers. Yes he played in the late ’80s and the still high-flying early ’90s, but he also played the back half of his career during the Dead Puck Era of the late ’90s and early 2000s. Adjusting for era brings his 1,420 points down a shade to 1,396, so he only loses 24 points. He currently sits 20th in all-time era adjusted scoring.

Backstrom has played a little more than half of the games Oates did in his career, and he’s now tied with Russ Cournall on 744 points, for 195th all-time. If you think that’s impressive, Backstrom’s era adjusted point total heading into this season was 826. That boost rockets him up the list of all-time era adjusted NHL scorers to 157th, just one point ahead of Yvan Cournoyer and Steven Stamkos. Yeah, something tells me Stamkos is gonna pass him.

OK – so both Oates and Backstrom have a lot of points. So what?

Well, why are these guys in the shadows in the first place? I would argue it’s because they’re playmakers. Sure, if you set up a nice play you’ll get an assist but the player who scored the goal gets a big spotlight put on them, a goal horn or whatever that car alarm in Washington is starts blaring, and everyone gives you a hug.

Playmakers often play the Rodney Dangerfield role.

Oates led his team in goal-scoring a grand total of one time, while Backstrom has never done it. While Backstrom was setting up a great goal-scorer like Ovechkin, Oates had Brett Hull in St. Louis, Cam Neely in Boston and Peter Bondra in Washington. Oates has two 30-goal seasons to Backstrom’s one, but when it comes to era-adjusted goals, they both have just one.

Both of them however are assist-generating beasts.

Among Backstrom’s career NHL points, 74.3 per cent of them are assists. For reference, take a guy like Joe Thornton who doesn’t score a lot of goals but is considered to be an elite playmaker, and only 72.3 per cent of his points are assists.

The percentage of points that were assists for Oates: 75.9 per cent. That means that for every goal Oates scored in his career, he would pick up three assists and then some. Backstrom isn’t far off, though.

What Oates and Backstrom can both boast is they were the set-up men for the top two goal-scoring performances in NHL history. I wrote about those performances earlier this season. Alex Ovechkin put up 72 era adjusted goals in 2007-08, the second-highest total ever, while Brett Hull’s monstrous 78 era adjusted goals in 1990-91 is the most dominant goal-scoring season the NHL has ever seen.

While Ovechkin was tearing it up in 2007-08, who was setting him up? It was Nicklas Backstrom with a team-leading 55 assists. For Hull in 1990-91, it was Adam Oates dishing out a stunning 90 assists.

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So who’s better?

Backstrom is a fantastic and underrated player, but Oates has the edge.

Backstrom has one season with 100 or more era adjusted points while Oates had three in the early ’90s; one with St. Louis and two with Boston. Not including prorated lockout-shortened seasons, Oates got 85 era-adjusted points or more 10 times. Backstrom has only managed five so far and he just turned 30. Then again, Oates’ career-best 115 era adjusted points came when he was 30, so maybe the best is yet to come for Backstrom.

In terms of single-season performance, how do these two rate as playmakers? Not that high. Oates’ best season for assists was only the 56th-best era adjusted season ever and Backstrom’s was 127th.

Oates’ strength was consistency. After stringing together a career of playmaking wizardry, Oates sits seventh in all-time era adjusted assists with 1,065. Backstrom has a long way to go. Fun fact: Joe Thornton is currently fifth. See? I told you he’s good.

So let’s sing of the unsung heroes of the hockey world: The playmakers.

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