The Most Underrated Player in Hockey

The NHL All-Star Game will be held this month, and the Caps will be represented by John Carlson and Braden Holtby (Caps star Alex Ovechkin was voted captain of the Metropolitan division team but declined the invitation, earning a one game suspension).

But one Caps player almost certainly will once again be left off the list: Nicklas Backstrom. In a 12-year, 853-game career, Backstrom has been named an All-Star a whopping one time.

It’s somewhat natural that Backstrom has been so underrated for so long. He’s always played in the shadow of Ovechkin, an older, louder, and drunker player who scores goals and steals the spotlight while Backstrom lurks and talliesless glamorous, yet equally important, assists.

It was Ovechkin who, on behalf of the Caps, actually called Backstrom’s name fourth in the 2006 NHL Draft. Nearly 11 years later, it was only fitting that Backstrom fed Ovechkin on the goal that marked his 1000th point.

For his part, Backstrom has never sought the spotlight and seems largely okay with playing the Robin to Ovechkin’s Batman. Throughout his career, he’s quietly set up Ovechkin to pick up all the All-Star nods and MVPs while he largely misses out on individual accolades.

But Backstrom is elite in his own right. The stats don’t lie: Backstrom leads his draft class with 843 career points, including at least 65 in every full season he’s played. An elite passer, he’s second among active players in assists per game—ahead of everyone not named Sidney Crosby—and sixth in points per game. At 31 years old, he already leads the Caps franchise in career assists and plus/minus, and he sits second in points and fourth in goals.

Backstrom is arguably the Caps’ best defensive forward, and certainly their best two-way guy. Caps coaches seek to match him up against opposing teams’ top lines, a rare trait in a high-end offensive player. He’s only been a minus player in 2 of his 12 NHL seasons and only had a negative relative Corsi in one.

You’d think that such a consistently elite player would receive at least some degree of recognition. Backstrom has never been even a finalist for a major award (aside from rookie of the year, for which he finished second). Only twice has he received any votes at all for MVP.

If you don’t trust me, ask the players. In player polls over the course of his career, Backstrom routinely earns the title of the NHL’s most underrated player. Players cite his strength on the puck and defensive play as underrated along with the more obvious passing and hands.

Casual discussions of the Caps often start and end with Alex Ovechkin, and for good reason. It’s too easy to forget that there are—or, at least, should be—two first-ballot Hall of Famers playing hockey in Washington.

-Tiger Bjornlund



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