A lot of finger pointing has gone on in Washington in the wake of their collapse against the Tampa Bay Lightning. A few have come to rest on Nicklas Backstrom, the young center who signed a shiny new $6.7 million per year deal last summer.
At a cursory glance, the criticism seems valid. After scoring 101 points in 82 games last season, Backstrom signed his big deal and promptly fell to just 65 points in 77 games this year. What's more, his underwhelming playoff performance (two assists in nine games) further suggests a sudden decline.
Upon closer inspection, however, it seems that Backstrom's suppressed output has more to do with fortune and circumstances than poor actual performance.
Here are Backstrom's advanced stats from 2009-10 and 2010-11:
Year Corsi/60 Relative Corsi Qual comp (rel) Zone start
2009-10 +15.74 +13.9 +0.112 58.0%
2010-11 +11.44 +12.1 +0.548 51.0%
Not a huge difference. In fact, Backstrom basically ran in place in terms of possession rates despite starting much more often in the defensive end and playing against mildly tougher competition. His relative Corsi rating was second in 2009-10 behind only Alexander Ovechkin and first amongst regular Washington skaters in 2010-11. Looking at these stats, there's an argument that Backstrom actually improved this year.
So why the depressed point totals? Two main culprits: power-play time and regression to the mean.
The issue of power-play time is self-explanatory: the Capitals drew less PP opportunities this season and Backstrom spent about 41 less minutes on the man advantage (297 minutes versus 256). The Capitals PP was less potent as a unit this season as well, dropping from 25.2% to just 17.5%. The combination of less time and less scoring that caused Backstrom's PP totals to drop from a team high 37 points in 2009-10 to just 22 points this season (-15 differential).
Of course, the primary issue was regression at even strength, for Backstrom and the Capitals as a whole. Washington boasted by far the most dangerous attack last year, scoring a league-high 3.82 goals per game (313 total). They built the edifice of their offense on a sky-high shooting percentage of 10.9% at even strength. As Gabriel Desjardins pointed out in April of 2010, that rate was unprecedented, even for a team built around guys like Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green:
With largely the same offensive personnel as in previous seasons, Washington has simply gotten very lucky in the shooting percentage department. Or for those of you who don't believe in luck, the Capitals players have "made their shots" this season. Either way, it's no more likely to happen again next year than it was to have happened last year.
Desjardins' post proved to be prescient. The percentages regressed back to the mean on the Capitals this season, dragging many of the Caps players back to earth with them. Backstrom was one of the guys hit hardhis on-ice shooting percentage shrank from a mind-boggling 12.42% at even strength in 2009-10 to a merely good 8.72% in 2010-11. Consequently, he dropped from 64 even strength points to just 42 as a result (differential of -22).
Less PP time, less PP potency and pucks going in a lot less frequently at five-on-five (as matter of variance) caused Backstrom's output to shrink this year.
As previously mentioned, in terms of actual ability the 23-year old at the very least ran in place, if not marginally improved this season. His totals may have fallen, but his ranking on the Capitals in terms of counting stats and underlying numbers remained fairly constant. For example, Backstrom was second on Washington in even strength, power-play and overall points in 2010-11. Last year, he was
second, first and second by the same measures respectively.
As far as his disappointing postseason goes, Capitals fans should take that small sample of games and throw it out the window, particularly because Backstrom has already proven to capable in the playoffs previously. Between 2007 and 2010, Backstrom garnered 30 points in 28 games played (1.07 PPG). Even if you include his slumptastic 2011 (two points in nine), Backstrom's 32 points in 37 games doesn't seem too bad for a guy who has yet to see his 24th birthday.
Backstrom's regression was born of chance and circumstances this year. He remains the same player he ever was. Perhaps a bit better, in fact.