The Washington Capitals honored longtime center Nicklas Backstrom for eclipsing 600 career assists with a pregame ceremony Wednesday night before playing their game against Pittsburgh.
A video tribute showed messages of congratulations from Backstrom’s family in Sweden, some current teammates and four Swedish NHL greats: Mats Naslund, Ulf Dahlen, Peter Forsberg and Mats Sundin. The league gave Backstrom a commemorative crystal and team owner Ted Leonsis presented him with a golden puck.
The Capitals’ all-time assist leader recorded No. 600 on Oct. 22 at Vancouver, while the team was out on a four-game road trip. He has reached 13 for the season, and 603 for his career, since then.
Backstrom is fourth among active NHL players in assists and has finished top-three in the league in six seasons. With 815 points entering Wednesday’s game, he is also on pace to pass Peter Bondra (825) for second-most points all-time in a Capitals uniform.
“I think ceremonies like this doesn’t happen every day, so I will take full advantage and enjoy it,” Backstrom said at the team’s morning skate.
Backstrom was humble when talking about the achievement, while his teammates and coach reflected on what he has meant to the Capitals organization. Backstrom, 30, has played his entire 12-year career in Washington, predating most everyone in the building apart from Alex Ovechkin.
“It’s unbelievable. It’s a pleasure to play with him,” Evgeny Kuznetsov said. “You know, he’s not gonna teach you a lot, he’s not gonna say a lot of words, but I don’t think he have to do that because you can just follow him on the ice, you can follow him off the ice and can see what he’s done and just learn a lot from that.”
How Backstrom carries himself off the ice, in fact, was a common refrain among other Capitals centers.
“I look up to him a ton, and it’s not just the on-ice stuff either,” Travis Boyd said. “He’s the nicest guy you’ll ever meet off the ice. He’s always saying hi to you. I remember my first couple call-ups that I got up here, I didn’t really know anyone, didn’t really know anything, and I’d see him in the hallway. He’s got a smile on his face saying hi to me.
“As a younger guy, in your first couple call-ups, coming into the National Hockey League for the first time, it can be a little intimidating. To have a superstar player like that say hi to you, it makes you feel comfortable and at home.”
Coach Todd Reirden first got to know Backstrom’s game by coaching against him while an assistant with the Penguins.
“I was able to watch him and you always have a certain admiration for a guy that can do the things that Nick can do,” Reirden said. “But it pales in comparison to how I feel about him now that I’ve coached him. I thought he was good — he was really good. When I coached against him, now that I get to watch him every day and deal with him and see how he thinks the game, he’s amazing.”
Just refer to his latest assist, No. 603, which came Monday night against Edmonton. Skating toward the blue line in Washington’s offensive zone, Backstrom beat his marker with an unexpected spin move and backhand pass to T.J. Oshie, who caught it in stride and on the tape of his stick, setting him up to score.
“Some of the things he does every single day, guys on the team will look at each other and just go, ‘You’ve gotta be kidding me. How does he do that?’” Boyd said. “That’s just a normal day, that’s another day in the office for him.”
Backstrom is not known to slack off on defense, either. Against the Oilers Monday, Backstrom’s line frequently matched up with Connor McDavid’s, and the Capitals were able to hold the best player in hockey without a point at even strength.
Reirden credited Backstrom with always knowing his elite opponents’ strengths and tendencies, in part because he is in that elite class himself.
“Whether it’s McDavid’s speed or (Sidney) Crosby’s ability to play down low and really puck-protect as well as anybody or (Evgeni) Malkin’s ability to beat you one-on-one,” Reirden said. “Every opponent has something that differentiates them, that makes them the elite of the elite. Nick is in that category and he is able to understand what those guys that are in that group of elite players are trying to accomplish. So I think that helps him understand how to defend against them.”
Lars Eller added that Backstrom “never seems to panic.”
“You can learn a lot just looking at the way he plays, the way he practices, the way he makes decisions and always keeps his calm,” Eller said.
• Adam Zielonka can be reached at email@example.com.
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