Backstrom Becoming More Artful on the Draw

Before I delve into today’s topic, I want to alert you to washingtoncaps.com’s ongoing coverage of the All-Star festivities in Atlanta. The Caps’ Nate Ewell is on the scene along with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, and he is chronicling the events and exploits of the two Washington participants in the weekend’s activities. You can check out Nate’s writings here.

One of the real benefits of watching a young team evolve, develop and blossom is watching young players evolve, develop and blossom right before your eyes over the course of games, weeks, months and seasons. Those of us who’ve seen the Caps play regularly over the last two and a half seasons have marveled at the growth of several players, but I wanted to point out a bit of growth that has gone completely unnoticed locally as far as I can tell.

Backstrom’s hockey sense, poise, puck and passing skills have been evident from the start of the season, and they were also evident to those of us who were fortunate enough to see him play before his NHL career got underway. A teenager when the 2007-08 season got underway, Backstrom was far from a finished player. One of the areas of the young center’s game that needed improvement was his work in the circle. Earlier in the season, he struggled with face-offs and was barely over 40%.

“Face-offs have been the biggest difference,” he said, back in early December. “Here it’s more like in every practice you practice face-offs. At home in Sweden, you don’t do it so much. You just go into the circle and drop the puck. Here it is more like a fight for the puck. That’s actually the difference. It’s tougher. I’m not so good at face-offs right now. I have to be better at that type of thing.”

Here we are nearing the beginning of February, and already the improvement in Backstrom’s faceoff ability has been revelatory. He has climbed to 45.7% on the season. For comparison’s sake, other highly touted rookies Sidney Crosby (45.5%) and Evgeni Malkin (43.3%) did not fare as well on the dot during their freshman seasons.

Even more impressive is Backstrom’s face-off work during the month of January. As the team’s No. 1 center, he has taken more draws than any other Caps pivot during the month. He has won 51.5% of his draws in January, including some key face-offs.

During Washington’s 5-3 win over Florida on Jan. 19, Backstrom won two offensive zone draws that led directly to goals within mere seconds of the puck drop. After that game, I told Backstrom that it seemed as though he had turned a corner in his face-off work and wondered if he felt the same way.

“I think we met the same teams [from earlier] in the season so I know a little bit what a couple guys are doing,” he told me. “It’s important with face-offs, especially in the offensive zone. I think tonight was okay from my side. I haven’t seen [the stats] yet.”

He won 9-of-20 on the night in that game, but two of those wins were huge. And he has been better than 50% in three straight games and four of his last five. What impresses the hell out of me is this: here’s a 20-year-old kid playing in a foreign country, and he has the mental wherewithal to “study” what his opponents are doing in the face-off circle to the point that he is using that information to win face-offs later in the very same season, his rookie season. And those face-off wins are leading to goals. And those goals are leading to wins.

That’s the sort of thing you can’t teach. That diligence, that desire to make yourself better and in the process, making your team better. I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again, this kid is something special. He has a great head for the game, and a quiet but fiery determination that burns within. I saw George McPhee quoted recently as saying that Backstrom is the type of player who helps you win Stanley Cups. I agree with that.

********

While we’re on the subject of face-offs, it’s worth noting that Washington has won the face-off battle in nine of its 11 games in January. In each of the games in which the Caps did not win the majority of the draws, their opponent won only two more draws than them. For the month, the Caps are at 56.5%. That’s an impressive win ratio and it basically means that the Caps are coming up with 56 and a half pucks to the opposition’s 43 and a half. For a young team, that’s a big plus. And every center on the team is contributing to that success.

We outlined Backstrom’s numbers above. Before Michael Nylander went out for the season, he had a 49.2% face-off win rate but won 53.4% of his January face-offs.

Boyd Gordon is at 55.6% on the season and is 58.1% during January.

David Steckel is at 54.2% on the season and is 59.6% during January.

Brooks Laich is at 51.4% on the season and is 60% during January.

Finally, as Laich recently related to us, it’s worth noting that the Caps’ wingers also play an important role in winning face-offs. If the Caps are able to maintain this trend of winning the majority of their draws — even at a lesser rate — for the remainder of the season, it will go a long way toward keeping pressure off their goaltenders and their young defense, and fueling what has been a very potent offensive attack of late.

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5 Comments on “Backstrom Becoming More Artful on the Draw”

  1. Anthony Says:

    I’ve been watching faceoffs more closely recently and Ive started to wonder if the caps couldn’t do a better job maintaining poccession of the puck after they get these face-off wins.

  2. Elicea Says:

    I agree with the post above. While Caps are doing great in offensive zone face-offs, in the defensive zone face-offs not so much. Although they are winning the face-offs in the defensive zone, the other team puts some pressure on them, and they give the puck away.

  3. Matt Says:

    Just watched the video with Brooks on sticks – great stuff.

    I was worried during the summer that Brooks wouldn’t be around for long but I’m glad he is having a good season and finding his place on this team and it’s future.

  4. Mike L. Says:

    Go back and look at the numbers, when the Caps last were a serious threat in the NHL (from 1997 through 2001), they had all kinds of great face-off guys on the roster: Hunter, Oates, Nikolishin, Konowalchuk (although he played wing), Linden. When Halpern came up, he was good on draws (about 50-52 percent) but on the Caps for at the time, he was the 3rd or 4th best face-off guy. The only other team that competed with the Caps in terms of Face-off percentage in those years was Carolina, with Brind’Amour and Francis…

    The only player I would have wanted to have more than those guys is the NHL’s greatest face-off man ever: Yanic Perreault…no body has been any better for so many years… alas he’s never made it to the Caps.

  5. doug Says:

    Hey Mike,

    Sorry to add this remark and be guilty of thread jacking……..but…….your audio interviews on the Caps web page (3 of Ovechkin and 1 of Backstrom) seem to be “not in working order.”.

    I know — you didn’t do it, but maybe this could be fixed. I know you work for the Caps. Thanks.

    BTW, great work – I read you each and every day!!!


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