Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Nicklas Backstrom quietly scored his 500th career point against the Edmonton Oilers Wednesday night.
He did it quietly because Backstrom does everything quietly. That has something to do with the fact that he’s Swedish and, remarkably like almost all his countrymen, is singularly unimpressed with himself. It also has something to do with the fact that he plays alongside Alex Ovechkin, a larger-than-life figure who is comfortable in the spotlight. Backstrom is more than happy to allow Ovechkin to soak up all the adulation, and have to handle the pressure that comes with being an NHL superstar.
But we have to give Backstrom his due here. Scoring 500 points in 501 career games before your 27th birthday is indeed impressive. Backstrom has been a clockwork point-a-game player almost since the day he stepped on the ice in the NHL for the first time and is one of the league’s premier set-up men. He has also often had to be a defensive presence on the line with Ovechkin.
Clearly, Backstrom is on his way to becoming one of the all-time greatest Swedish-born players ever. How he will stack up against other greats will depend on how durable he continues to be and how long his career lasts. Backstrom has been remarkably dependable over the course of his career, missing just 45 of a possible 546 career games. He has had only one major injury during his career, missing 40 games in 2011-12 because of a concussion. Since then, he hasn’t missed a single game in two-plus seasons.
With some luck and sustained top-level play, it’s not outlandish to suggest that Backstrom could one day be the top-scoring Swedish player of all-time. He faces a challenge in doing that, but it’s possible.
The top-scoring Swede of all-time is Mats Sundin, who finished his career with 1,349 points in 1,346 career games. Next on the list is Daniel Alfredsson, who has 1,157 points in 1,246 games and faces an uncertain future. Sundin hit the 500-point mark a little more quickly than Backstrom did, accomplishing the feat in 473 games when he was 25 years old. Alfredsson, meanwhile, took 562 games to hit the 500 mark and was already 30 by the time he’d done it.
But what makes Alfredsson so remarkable is the fact that he was far more productive in his 30s than he was in his 20s. Going into this season, Alfredsson had followed up his first 500 points by scoring 746 in just his next 595 games. While he could add to that total if he manages to come back for one more season – a prospect that is looking dimmer all the time – it’s likely he won’t get much higher than the 1,200 mark for his career.
But if Backstrom can somehow channel his inner Alfredsson and still have his most productive years in the future, there’s no reason why he won’t be able to challenge Sundin for top spot among Swedish players. Henrik Zetterberg and the Sedin twins are likely too far back and too far into their careers to make a serious push for that honor. All three of them are 34 years old and Henrik Sedin, with 834 career points, is the leader among them.
This much we know: Including this season, Backstrom is under contract for six more years to the Capitals. When his contract expires in 2020, he won’t even have reached his 33rd birthday. And barring a trade – he has a no-trade complete no-trade clause until after 2015-16, then can submit a list of seven teams to which he will not accept a trade every September after that – he will spend those six seasons continuing to place pinpoint passes on the stick of one of the greatest goalscorers of this generation.
Assuming he stays healthy and continues to produce at a point-per-game level, Backstrom will probably be somewhere in the 1,000-point range by the time he finishes this contract. So he’ll likely have to step it up the way Alfredsson did.
The possibilities are there for Backstrom. And if he does manage to usurp Sundin as the most offensively productive Swede ever, it’s hard to imagine that the Hall of Fame would not come calling three years after he calls it quits. As quiet as he may be, then it will be impossible to ignore him.