Photo: Bruce Bennett
Spenser Smallwood writes about the Caps for Along the Boards. We’re excited to have him to help out here on RMNB. Please give him a warm welcome and follow him on Twitter.
For the last two years, the Selke vote has been somewhat predictable. Patrice Bergeron has taken home the trophy, and Jonathan Toews, David Backes, and Anze Kopitar have finished as the other top four vote-getters. Last year, Nicklas Backstom finished 11th in voting, his first time in the top twenty. It may be unlikely that Backstrom amasses enough votes to take the trophy this season either, but that hasn’t stopped Capitals Head Coach Barry Trotz’s drum-banging regarding Backstrom’s defensive prowess.
He might be right.
Let’s first take a look at Backstrom’s stats compared to those four.
While Backstrom does allow a high number of shot attempts (fourth of five) compared to the others, he and his linemates do a very good job at making those shot attempts ineffective. He ranks second in the group in Shots Against per 60, and first by a large margin in the only stat that changes the score, Goals Against per 60. He individually blocks a higher rate of shots than everyone on the list not named Kopitar, and his takeaways have him ranked third.
On the penalty kill (5v4 only for sample size and simplicity’s sake), the story is basically the same. Backstrom ranks at the bottom in Shot Attempts Against per 60, but first in SA/60 and GA/60. He allows shot attempts, but a higher percentage of those attempts are blocked, miss the net or are saved. This stat pattern is also a microcosm of the Washington Capitals. They sit back in the defensive zone and allow low-danger shot attempts, and in the offensive zone, they move the puck to better scoring areas instead of settling for low danger shots. For Backstrom the high-danger scoring chance against statistic also bares this out, where he allows the least of the fivesome at 9.37 per 60 minutes. For comparison, Toews has the highest at 11.48 per 60.
Backstrom is not cheating on that GA/60 stat either as he is doing it playing against top competition while starting in the defensive zone. Backstrom ranks third in the group in both statistics. Toews and Kopitar both start in the offensive zone more frequently than the defensive zone, and only Bergeron and Toews have played more against the other team’s top lines. Interestingly as well, Backstrom’s Zone Start Rate is lower at home (the only one of the group that can say that), possibly showing Trotz’s willingness to match Backstrom at home in the defensive zone.
Only nine forwards that have played 750 minutes 5v5 have played against tougher competition (teammates Alex Ovechkin and TJ Oshie are two). None of those have a lower GA/60. In fact, only four players total have a lower GA/60 than Backstrom using the same minutes criteria, Kyle Palmieri, Joe Thornton, James Neal, and Andrew Shaw. Thornton and Neal start in the offensive zone far more than they do in the defensive zone, and none play nearly as often against top competition.
Why are Backstrom’s GA statistics so stellar? A line including Ovechkin does not immediately scream shutdown line, but Trotz has been using them that way, and they have produced. Oppositions try to tackle Ovechkin in two ways: a top line or a defensive checking line always with the top defensive pairing. This season the Caps have not backed down from the first option, instead choosing to embrace it. Backstrom is paired with Ovechkin because Trotz knows that he is more often than not going to get the other team’s top line and top defensive pair against them, and Backstrom and company have been shutting them down. When he can match, Trotz knows Backstrom and Ovechkin will tilt the ice toward the offensive end no matter who they are playing against, so they might as well neutralize the competition’s top line. This allows Kuznetsov and the Caps other lines to slot in against weaker competition and reap. This may be the biggest reason why Trotz is hesitant to put Kuznetsov back with Ovechkin. Unfortunately, Kuznetsov is simply not in Backstrom’s league defensively, yet.
Here are a few of the specific reasons that Backstrom is stellar defensively.
He is able to stay with his man very well and intuitively knows when to switch. This is a hard attribute to quantify, but poor switches are where breakdowns occur, and Backstrom is one of the best.
His decision making with the puck mirrors his ability in the offensive zone. He always seems to make the smart play with the puck and rarely forces it into places he shouldn’t.
His work along the boards in the defensive zone is better than many defensemen.
His stick is always in great position to affect and deflect passes.
He gets in shooting lanes very well. People don’t really consider Backstrom a shot blocker, but he leads all Caps forwards.
I watched a bunch of game footage to find examples of shot blocks and overall defensive expertise, but instead decided to include only some subtle plays from one recent game. Most good defensive plays are subtle after all.
In all likelihood Backstrom will not win the Selke this year, though his ability to shut down the opponent’s best is a boon for the Caps top line and will be important for the team in their quest for the only trophy that really matters.
All stats are from Corsica and war-on-ice and are current through March 27.
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