-- Two seasons ago, Nicklas Backstrom
reached 100 points for the first time in his career and was on the brink of being considered among the very best centers in hockey.
Not just among the top 10, or an elite guy, but the best -- territory that is normally reserved for guys like Sidney Crosby
and Pavel Datsyuk
. Backstrom's point total had risen substantially in each of his first three seasons, and his work at the defensive end was starting to generate some "future Selke Trophy candidate" arguments.
Like most of the top players on the Washington Capitals
, Backstrom's 2010-11 season went awry. His production swooned to 18 goals and 65 points -- hardly a bad year for some, but absolutely for a guy with his track record and potential.
"It was really frustrating, actually," Backstrom said. "At the same time, I don't even want to talk about it because it just gets me upset. It is a new season now and I'm just looking forward to the new season and a big year for us."
If it was already a disappointing year by March, it managed to get worse. Backstrom missed the first games of his career because of a broken thumb. He returned before the end of the regular season, and finished with 9 points in the last nine games.
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The thumb continued to bother him in the postseason, though, and he finished Washington's muted run with no goals and 2 points in nine games. In the failed postseason runs earlier in his career, Backstrom was always one of the guys who escaped blame because he "showed up."
This past postseason he became target No. 1 on the roster for criticism of the team's failure, though he had kept the second problem with his thumb a secret until after the season ended.
"Yeah, it was tough," Backstrom said. "I don't even watch TV or try not to read anything on the internet [this summer]. It was probably a good thing."
What Backstrom did instead was look for a new way to improve. He found it with Sebastien Falk, a successful Swedish speed skater. Backstrom traveled about 15 miles west of his hometown of Gavle, Sweden, to Sandviken to train with his new skating coach.
While teammate Marcus Johansson
is known for his speed and Alex Ovechkin
is known for his powerful stride, Backstrom has always been seen as someone more smooth than expertly skilled when it came to skating.
"I know I'm not the fastest guy on the first steps, so I've been working on that," Backstrom said. "It has been my key since I came over here [to North America] and it has been getting better and better, but I really wanted to take the next step and really get better.
"I've been working out a lot with him and it feels good. I feel better on the ice, especially with my skating."
Backstrom has also had a year to adjust to his new lifestyle. He signed a 10-year, $67 million contract in the summer of 2010, and while Backstrom stopped short of saying that was a distraction last year, he expects to be more comfortable this season.
"It shouldn't have ... it is better," Backstrom said. "I've got a new house here. Last year was a lot of back and forth about what I should do and stuff like that. At the same time, everything is all set now. There shouldn't be any problems with stuff like that."
Added forward Brooks Laich
: "I don't think a lot has to be said to Nicky. I think he's a very intelligent kid and he puts a lot of pressure on himself -- even more than what outsiders do. He looks very, very focused so far in camp. He takes a lot of responsibility. He is the first guy to deflect the glory and the first guy to accept the blame."
Backstrom wasn't alone in his offensive struggles last year. Ovechkin, Laich, Alexander Semin
and Mike Green
all slipped from the previous season.
When Backstrom and Ovechkin are in harmony, they are one of the most devastating duos in the sport. When they are struggling, it becomes a "chicken or the egg"-type dispute about who is negatively affecting who.
"We've got to work harder," Backstrom said. "I think that is actually the biggest key. It is not a secret. The guys who are always up there with the scoring leaders are always working hard. That's what we have to get back to."
The Capitals have something of a new-look roster, with several new supporting players in tow for another run at the postseason success that has eluded them. Even with the reinforcements, bounce-back campaigns from guys like Backstrom and Ovechkin will go a long way toward helping people forget about the disappointment of last season.
"I think Nicky is going to have a great season," Laich said. "He's going to make everybody forget about ... well, I don't even know if you can call a 70-point season a sub-par season, but that just shows how good he is and how high the bar is set for him."