Are Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom Better off on Separate Lines?

Jonathan Willis@jonathanwillisNHL National ColumnistOctober 30, 2015

Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin (8), from Russia, and center Nicklas Backstrom (19), from Sweden, pause on the ice during a break in the first period of an NHL hockey game Saturday, March 28, 2015, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Alex Brandon/Associated Press

For most of the last decade, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom have been running mates and good ones. Dangerous individually, together they complement each other beautifully. Backstrom brings defensive savvy and playmaking vision, with the former quality allowing him to offset Ovechkin’s deficiencies and the latter enabling him to maximize his teammate’s tremendous talents. Ovechkin, the game’s best winger, needs no introduction; he’s jelled with Backstrom over the years and played his best hockey alongside Washington’s top centre.

It was a beautiful partnership, but for the time being at least it appears to be at an end. And while the duo played some marvelous hockey together, in the early going it appears that Ovechkin, Backstrom and the Capitals are all better off for the separation.

As it often is, necessity was the mother of invention here. Backstrom had surgery on his hip in May, and head coach Barry Trotz told the Washington Post’s Isabelle Khurshudyan at the start of October that the Caps’ No. 1 centre would not be available to begin the season.

Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz
Washington Capitals coach Barry TrotzNick Wass/Associated Press/Associated Press

“He won’t start the season,” Trotz told Khurshudyan. “I know that for sure. I wouldn’t think that’d he’d play through those first four games.”

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As it turned out, Backstrom missed the first three games of the season. Trotz promoted 23-year-old sophomore Evgeny Kuznetsov to the top line in his absence, slotting him between Ovechkin and newcomer T.J. Oshie. There were some bumps early, as Oshie adjusted to a new team, as Kuznetsov adapted to a feature role and Ovechkin battled his alarm clock.

But Ovechkin was producing when he played, and in the game before Backstrom returned the trio had a big night against Chicago. Kuznetsov set Oshie up for a power-play goal to open the scoring, and then Kuznetsov and Ovechkin closed out the night with a lovely goal after Oshie sent them up-ice with the puck:

Trotz decided to keep his top unit intact, instead starting Backstrom on the team’s second line, between Marcus Johansson and another newcomer, ex-Los Angeles winger Justin Williams.

The results have been breathtaking.

Kuznetsov now ranks fourth in NHL scoring, with 12 points in eight games. The NHL named him the first star of the week on Monday, noting his five-point effort against Edmonton, his three assists against Calgary and his set up of Ovechkin’s game-winner against Vancouver as Washington swept a Western Canada road trip. Ovechkin has points in six of seven games and nine points overall, while Oshie has seven points in eight games on the season.

Backstrom, meanwhile, hasn’t looked anything like a player coming off significant offseason surgery. He has seven points in his first five games with Washington. Johansson and Williams have five and six points, respectively.

It’s not just point totals, though. When either Ovechkin or Backstrom is on the ice, that ice is tilted in favour of the Capitals. At even strength this year, Washington has out-chanced its opponents 71-45 with Ovechkin on the ice, meaning that a whopping 61.2 percent of on-ice chances are taking place in the attacking zone. Backstrom’s numbers are almost as good; the Caps have a 34-22 edge on the season (60.7 percent). Teams tend to win a lot of games when the top two lines can dominate chance counts that way.

The key here appears to be the supporting cast. Washington has actually tried splitting Ovechkin and Backstrom before, both in 2011-12 under Dale Hunter and in 2012-13 under Adam Oates. The problem was that in either season, the on-ice shot numbers for both Backstrom and Ovechkin tended to dive when they were split up. The Capitals simply couldn’t build fully functional lines around their two stars and ended up putting them back together.

Ovechkin, Oshie and Kuznetsov, Washington's new top line
Ovechkin, Oshie and Kuznetsov, Washington's new top lineAlex Brandon/Associated Press

Now, things are different. Evgeny Kuznetsov was a fixture on "best player outside the NHL" lists for years, and we may be seeing him emerge as a star in the majors. He’s the first non-Backstrom centre in years to show good chemistry immediately with Ovechkin. Also important are Oshie and Williams, both two-way veterans of tough, defensively responsible Western Conference teams. Both wingers add elements that have been missing in Washington for ages.

If this experiment continues to work, it makes life much easier for Trotz and much more difficult for the Caps’ opposition. Chicago has been the league’s most dominant team over the last half-decade mostly playing Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane on different lines; that decision has allowed the Blackhawks to run two elite units, forcing opposition teams to try to shut down both of them.

If Ovechkin and Backstrom can centre two extremely competent lines, that gives Washington the same edge, making it much harder to shut down and allowing it to exploit teams that don’t have two extremely good defence pairings. That multi-pronged attack matters a lot during the season, but even more during the playoffs, when goals are so hard to find.  

Statistics courtesy of war-on-ice.com, stats.hockeyanalysis.com, naturalstattrick.com and NHL.com

Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.