Call it a case of the "contract blues." Nicklas Backstrom has a history of success in the NHL, beginning with his second-place finish for the Calder Trophy in 2008, up to his first 100+ point season in 2009-10.
But last season, something was obviously missing. Backstrom ended the year with 65 points, his lowest total since entering the league. It was evident just watching him on the ice – his passes weren't as crisp, he wasn't shooting as often (he had just 18 goals), and something just didn't seem right. All this coming after signing his ten-year contract extension with the Capitals in the summer of 2010.
It's an odd phenomenon sometimes in the NHL – a player signs a large contract in the offseason and follows it up with a lackluster season. With his "contract blues" season behind him, there's no reason to believe that Backstrom will have another disappointing season in 2011-12.
Backstrom started by owning up to the fact that he had an off 2010-11 season. Capitals blog Japers' Rink provided a translation of a Swedish-language interview, in which Backstrom said, "I'm still incredibly disappointed ... I underachieved."
While part of the dip may be due to the team shifting focus to more defensive systems, some problems could have been attributed to the thumb that Backstrom broke in February. He missed games for the first time in his career and the thumb continued to bother him through the playoffs. Whatever the case, changes needed to be made before beginning the season in October.
Backstrom decided to do something about it this summer. He changed up his trainer, opting to work with a former speed skater in Sweden to improve his skating and speed. Backstrom returned to D.C. last week, and has already joined teammates in informal skates at the Capitals practice facility. The skates are including work with Capitals strength and conditioning coach Mark Nemish.
Even watching Backstrom take part in a scrimmage with teammates on Friday, he looked like his old, prolific self. His passes were accurate and his shots (for the most part) didn't miss. Should we put much stock in how he looks during an informal skate? Maybe not, but his confidence seems to have improved.
Hopefully that confidence will carry on through the season. The Capitals offense depends on it.
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