It wasn’t a statistic anyone was tracking too closely, no major milestone he was about to reach, but when Nicklas Backstrom picked up an assist on Tom Wilson’s second period tally Tuesday night against the New Jersey Devils, it marked the sixth consecutive season that the Washington Capitals center has registered 50 assists. With it, Backstrom moved into some noteworthy company.
Prior to Tuesday night, you see, there had only been 25 players in NHL history to manage six-straight 50-assist campaigns. It’s a list that includes Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux and Steve Yzerman. It also includes Adam Oates and Ron Francis and Paul Coffey, as well as a whole host of others. Only one active player, Joe Thornton, is part of the same six-by-50 club, and recent retiree Henrik Sedin can count himself as part of the group. What should be noted now – this statistic courtesy of the Capitals’ PR team – is that of those who have registered 50 assists in six consecutive seasons, all but two who reached the mark prior to Backstrom are in the Hall of Fame. The others, Thornton and Sedin, are not yet eligible but all but certain to be inducted when the time comes. And that would suggest that Backstrom, at some point after he hangs up his skates, could likewise have his name called to the Hall.
In many ways, Backstrom is the quietest star of his generation, which is in no small part due to the talent he has been surrounded with over the course of his dozen seasons in the NHL. His entire tenure in Washington, of course, has been largely overshadowed by the presence of Alex Ovechkin, who is not only one of or the greatest goal scorer in league history, depending on who you ask, but also one of the bigger personalities in the game. From the toothless grin to the exuberant celebrations, Ovechkin was built for the spotlight, and that has resulted in Backstrom – whether he’s wanted to or not – spending much of his career as the second-in-command in Washington.
It’s not just Ovechkin, though. In ways, Backstrom has always been second, third or fourth in line when the Capitals come up. In the early days, Mike Green and Alexander Semin were among those who took some of the shine that could have been reserved for Backstrom. Now, that secondary group contains Braden Holtby and John Carlson and Tom Wilson and Evgeny Kuznetsov, each of whom have likely received more press than Backstrom over the past few seasons for a variety of reasons. None of this is to mention, either, the non-Capitals with whom Backstrom has had to battle for a place in the spotlight, a group which includes Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Patrick Kane and so on and so forth.
But when Backstrom registered his 50th assist Tuesday and joined that exclusive class of set-up men, it gave reason for pause and reflection on a career that is deserving of far greater praise than it has received as one of the league’s premier playmakers enters into his early 30s. And make no mistake, while “quiet consistency” might be the perfect way to describe Backstrom’s play since his arrival in the league back in 2007-08, he was building a Hall of Fame case long before he joined the Gretzkys and Lemieuxs and Thorntons with his recent playmaking feat.
Start simply by considering his offensive numbers. Since his rookie campaign – one he shared with Kane and Jonathan Toews, among others – Backstrom has proven himself to be in an elite class of point producers. All told, there are only four players since 2007-08 who have accumulated more points than Backstrom, who has 227 goals and 867 points in 887 games and counting over the past 11-plus seasons. The only players with greater point totals are Malkin (916), Kane (929), Crosby (987) and Ovechkin (1,006). What separates Backstrom from the rest of the class, however, is his assist total. His 640 assists since 2007-08 are more than any other player.
Some will argue that longevity has played a part in Backstrom’s ability to elevate himself to such a level – he has missed only 53 games in his NHL career – but it should be noted that even on a per-game basis, the 31-year-old rates among the best offensive talents. Among players with at least 500 games played since 2007-08, Backstrom is tied with Ryan Getzlaf for eighth at .98 points per game. Ahead of him are Crosby (1.27), Malkin (1.19), Ovechkin (1.10), Kane (1.04), Steven Stamkos (1.02), Martin St-Louis (1.00) and Pavel Datsyuk (1.00).
Backstrom hasn’t only been an offensive driver in Washington, however. Defensively, his reliability and responsibility has made him an important part of the Capitals’ success, garnering him fringe Selke Trophy consideration several times. Four times, in fact, he’s finished among the top dozen players in voting for the league’s best two-way forward, and he placed seventh in voting during the 2016-17 campaign. He’s never won the award, though. Matter of fact, he has not a single piece of individual hardware to his name. Two times, Backstrom has finished top-10 in Hart Trophy voting, finishing ahead of Ovechkin in balloting on the Presidents’ Trophy winning Capitals group in 2016-17. That that’s where his personal accolades end is a knock against Backstrom for some. However, it hardly feels fair to measure Backstrom’s credentials on what lines his mantle given the caliber of talent he’s shared the ice with and skated against.
It’s not as though Backstrom’s trophy case is entirely empty, though. He has one piece of hardware that many others, such as Thornton and Sedin, do not. Last season, Backstrom lifted the Stanley Cup high above his head, second in line to hoist it after Ovechkin, Washington’s captain, did so. Backstrom was integral to that run, his 23 points the third-most among Capitals skaters and his 20:37 average ice time second among forwards.
For Backstrom, there are still milestones to reach before his Hall of Fame candidacy becomes an open-and-shut case. The thousand-point plateau will be a big one, as will his pursuit of 900 or even 1,000 assists, which might not be all that far-fetched a goal depending on his longevity. And if Hall of Fame induction does come someday for Backstrom, he’ll stand and deliver an induction speech, earning himself a well-deserved moment alone in the spotlight.