In the NHL, an elite scorer is only as good as his teammates. Washington fans have learned this lesson in recent years watching their young center, Nicklas Backstrom, feed his fellow Capitals a steady diet of pinpoint passes. The team already had players who could put the puck in the net when Nicklas arrived. His impact is clearest in the standings. From the very first season he joined Washington, the team went from also-rans to division champs. In this case, maybe the Caps have become as good as Nicklas. This is his story…

GROWING UP

Lars Nicklas Backstrom was born on November 23, 1987, in Gavle, Sweden. (Click here for a complete listing of today's sports birthdays.) Nicklas was the second of two boys. He and his older brother, Kristoffer, were on skates almost as soon as they could walk.

Nicklas was obsessed with hockey. As a toddler, he walked around the house with his skates on, and as a boy he slept in his skates. Actually, the Backstrom boys never met a sport they didn’t love—or couldn’t play at a high level—including soccer, tennis and golf. Both excelled at hockey, playing for youth-league teams. By his 11th birthday, Niclas began to excel on the ice, and soon he was playing two age groups above his level. 

Nicklas got his athletic genes from both parents. His mom Christine had been a professional handball player. His father had an even more impressive resume.

Anders played professional hockey for Byrnas, the local club in Gayle. He was drafted by the New York Rangers in 1980, but he never joined the team. His career with Byrnas lasted 10 seasons. Among the team’s all-time greats were Borje Salming, Stefan Persson and Mats Naslund. All went on to stardom in the NHL.

Nicklas was eager to follow in his father’s footsteps. After he turned 16, Nicklas was scooped up by Byrnas’s junior team in the J20 SuperElit League. He helped the club reach the playoffs in his first year.

In his second season, Nicklas averaged better than a point a game and was promoted to Byrnas’s entry in the Elitserien, Sweden’s top pro league. Nicklas played a full year with the grown-ups in 2005–06 and more than held his own, scoring 10 goals with 16 assists in 46 games. He was named Rookie of the Year and also scored a goal in the playoffs. Playing with and against seasoned pros, he demonstrated an astonishing ability to put the puck on teammates' sticks with precise, easy-to-handle passes.

All the while, Nicklas was representing his country in international play. At the 2005 U18 World Championships, he had five points in seven games as Sweden captured the bronze medal. It was at this point that NHL teams began assigning scouts to follow his progress. The Capitals made him a priority for Mats Weiderstal, one of the top talent evaluators in Europe.

Nicklas played for Sweden in the 2006 World Junior Championships, netting seven points in six games. He also snagged a spot on the National Team at the World Championships that year. The Swedes blanked the U.S. and edged Canada 5–4 to reach the finals. There they defeated the Czech Republic, 4–0. He played on the same line as Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen of the Detroit Red Wings. At 18 years, six months, Nicklas was the youngest player ever to take the ice for Sweden in the World Championships.

ON THE RISE

Soon after, Nicklas was selected with the fourth pick in the NHL Draft by the Capitals. The first three players chosen were American Erik Johnson and Canadians Jordan Staal and Jonathan Toews. Nicklas’s junior team teammates Patrik Berglund and Dennis Persson also went in the first round.

Nicklas turned down Washington’s initial contract offer, feeling like everything was going too fast. This frustrated the Caps, who were concerned they'd have to wait a year to team the young playmaker with their great young scorer, Alexander Ovechkin. But Nicklas wouldn’t be rushed. Instead he logged one the 2006–07 season with Byrnas, during which he tallied 40 points in 45 games. He led the club in points and assists. 

Nicklas began his NHL career in 2007–08. He made an immediate impression on his Washington teammates with his great hands and vision. Not only was he a talented set-up man from his first game, his superb anticipation made him a dangerous defensive player. Rarely a game went by when Nicklas didn’t step in front of a pass and begin a break the other way. He was racking up assists like crazy, shattering the team mark for rookies along the way.

The Caps had a successful season too, although it certainly didn’t begin that way. After a disastrous 6–14 start, coach Glen Hanlon was shown the door andreplaced by Bruce Boudreau, who rewarded Nicklas with lots of ice time—as long as he played within the team’s system. With Ovechkin turning in an MVP season—including 65 goals and 47 assists—the team reversed its fortunes and finished atop the Southeast Conference with a 43–31–8 record. The Caps won 12 of their final 13 games. Nicklas was a big part of this surge. He had 18 points in the team’s final 18 games.


 

 

 


Borje Salming, 1978 Topps

     
 

Centering much of the year for a line that featured Ovechkin and Viktor Kozlov, Nicklas led the club with 55 assists; 22 came on power plays. He added 14 goals—four of which were game-winners—for a total of 69 points. He was the NHL’s Rookie of the Month in January and was one of three finalists for the league ’s Calder Trophy as top rookie. He finished second to Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks.

The Caps opened the playoffs with a 5–4 victory over the Flyers, but they lost the next three games, including a painful double-OT disappointment. Washington battled back to force a Game 7, which went into overtime. Philadelphia sent the fans home empty-handed when Joffrey Lupul scored a power play goal. Nicklas had three goals and two assists in the seven games. His +3 postseason rating was the best on the club.

Nicklas continued to evolve as a player in 2008–09. He scored 22 goals and added 66 assists to lead all second-year players with 88 points. Aside from Ovechkin, no Capital had piled up more points since Mike Ridley in the 1980s. Once again, Nicklas was murder on the power play, setting up no fewer than 28 Washington goals and scoring 14 himself. Washington repeated as division champs, with a 50–24–8 record.  

Heading into the playoffs, many experts were picking the Caps to reach the Stanley Cup Finals. After four games in the opening round against the Rangers, this prediction looked silly. The Caps were down in the series, having lost three games by a single goal. Washington regrouped and tied the Blueshirts. In Game 7, veteran Sergei Fedorov scored the winning goal for the Caps in the third period. 

Washington’s next series was an even stiffer challenge. Facing the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Capitals seized control early, winning the first two games at home. The Pens turned the tables by winning the next three games—two on overtime goals. The Caps responded with an OT win in Pittsburgh to froce Game 7.

Unfortunately, the Penguins had too much offense for the Caps to handle. They overwhelmed goalie Simeon Varmalov on their way to a 6–2 win. Nicklas tallied at least one point in each of his team’s seven playoff wins, but that was of no consolation. Neither was the fact that the Penguins went on to win the Stanley Cup. The Caps had ’em and they let ’em go.

The Capitals hoped to learn from their playoff collapse and improve in 2009–10. They did so by winning their third straight Southeast Division title and posting the best record in the NHL, with 54 wins and 121 points. Nicklas blossomed into a true superstar. Game after game he dazzled opponents with his otherworldly passing. When he and Ovechkin teamed up on power plays, they were almost guaranteed to produce a quality scoring chance.


Nicklas Backstrom, 2007 Ultimate Threads
     
 

Nicklas ended up third in the NHL in assists with 68. He added 33 goals to top the 100-point mark. Only MVP Henrik Sedin, Joe Thornton and Ovechkin had more points. And no one topped Nicklas’s 48 points in road games. Nicklas was part of another elite club. Only he, Wayne Gretzky and Peter Stastny had begun their careers with three seasons of 55 or more assists.

Again, however, the Caps faltered in the playoffs. What could have been a career-defining postseason for Nicklas, Ovechkin and the team’s other young stars ended suddenly and unexpectedly with a first-round loss to the Montreal Canadiens. Washington led the series after four games, but the club failed to close the deal when goalie Jaroslav Halak got hot for Montreal. He turned aside a barrage of shots in three straight wins, as the Canadiens pulled off teh upset. Lost in Washington ’s disappointment was Nicklas’s first NHL hat trick.

Did Nicklas have the drive to match his skills? Would he secure a place among the league’s elite? The Capitals were certainly convinced.

In May of 2010, they put the finishing touches on a 10-year contract that paid Nicklas upwards of $65 million. The signing was part of a plan to lock up their four “Young Guns”—Backstrm, Ovechkin, Mike Green and Alexander Semin. With this core, the Caps promised to be a formidable team for years to come.

NICKLAS THE PLAYER

Few centers in recent history have been more feared on the power play than Nicklas . At even-strength, his knack for finding open teammates and thinking a pass ahead makes him a dangerous player. With a man advantage—and with sniper Alexander Ovechkin hovering near the net—Nicklas is amazing. In this regard, the fact that he is not one of Washington's fastest skaters may actually work to his advantage.

Nicklas doesn't normally draw oohs and aahs with bullet passes. Instead, he gets the puck where it needs to go in a way that any player can handle. This skill involves vision, timing and great hands. He is one of the few centers who can make saucer passes that land flat.

Nicklas is obviously a potent offensive player. But he has also worked hard to become excellent defensively and on face-offs. Above all, he is competitive. Nicklas skates to win on every shift.


Wayne Gretzky, 1979 Topps
     

 

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