October 06, 2009
There are certain statistic benchmarks in hockey that indicate an NHL player has achieved an elite status. Once a winger breaks the 50-goal barrier, he's forever known as a 50-goal scorer. (No matter what happens to Jonathan Cheechoo(notes), it's still his calling card.) Once a center breaks 100 points, he's forever known as a 100-point center.
Vincent Lecavalier(notes) is a 100-point center; Jason Spezza(notes) is potentially one. Pavel Datsyuk(notes), for all his offensive wizardry, will be asked about the 100-point threshold he's yet to cross until he crosses it.
In two NHL seasons, Nicklas Backstrom(notes) of the Washington Capitals has scored 69 and 88 points in 82-game seasons, spending the majority of his time as Alexander Ovechkin's(notes) personal pivot. He begins the 2009-10 season not only centering Ovechkin, but centering the Capitals' other awe-inspiring Alex: Mr. Semin, who scored 79 points in just 62 games last season.
With two offensive stars on his wings, does Backstrom believe this is the season he becomes a 100-point center?
"Yeah. Maybe," he said with a smile, before the season began. "You have to produce when you play with them. We'll see what happens. See how it works."
In two games, it's worked with lethal artistry: The trio has combined for 16 points, assisting on each other's goals against Boston and Toronto. They've exhibited that rare hockey sonar between linemates that enables them to anticipate each other's actions; no small feat when Ovechkin and Semin are two of the most instinctual scorers in hockey.
Is this trio the best in the League? Let your voice be heard:
They're a stellar trio ... but can the Capitals afford to keep these mega-powers together for the entire season?
The assumption entering this season was that the Alex's would each be slotted with one of the team's summer acquisitions: Ovechkin on the opposite wing of Mike Knuble(notes) on the first line, and Semin playing with Brendan Morrison(notes) as his pivot on the second line.
But Semin is a more productive goal-scorer when paired with Ovechkin. His goals-for per 60 minutes with Ovechkin last season was 1.752; apart, Semin's average dipped to 1.155. As he told the Washington Examiner, his line with Ovechkin and Backstrom is simply too good to break up at the moment:
"We just have a great chemistry with Alex and Nick and no one is selfish. No one is taking it all on himself. It's simply a pleasure to play when you have such chemistry. We just know each other all too well: Where each of us should be, when to expect a pass, which position on the ice each one of us should take."
It's that sort of offensive flourish that no doubt attracted Morrison to Washington, after playing last season with the Anaheim Ducks and Dallas Stars. He called the offense in Anaheim "almost robotic," with too many set plays and rigid structure. Washington presented a different kind of scoring attack, especially had Semin been on his wing.
If he isn't, does Morrison think there are enough goals down the lineup to allow for the Capitals to be that top-heavy?
"I firmly believe this team has three good scoring lines," he said.
It was a sentiment echoed by Backstrom: "Absolutely. I don't think that's a problem, as long as we work together as a team."
The Capitals say that the rest of the lineup can provide enough offense when the top line is off the ice. Second-line forward Brooks Laich(notes) has five points in his first two games, although two of his three goals were on the power play.
Coach Bruce Boudreau said he wasn't concerned about depth scoring with the three big guns on the same line. He said the return of Tomas Fleischmann(notes) (19-18-37) and Eric Fehr(notes) (12-13-25 in 61 games) from injury will bolster the offense. He also offered that Knuble scored more goals "by himself" than the departed Sergei Fedorov(notes) and Viktor Kozlov(notes) did combined last season.
Even if the Ovechkin/Backstrom/Semin line creates a little unbalance in the lineup, Boudreau expects the Capitals to overcome it.
"We're going to be better defensively, so hopefully it won't take that many goals to win the game," he said.
The other issue with the mega-powers line doesn't concern this season, but rather next summer.
Semin and Backstrom are both restricted free agents after this season, and GM George McPhee was already fielding questions about their status on the first day of training camp. Should this line produce career numbers for two players already in line for lucrative deals, might they break the bank on a team dancing near the cap?
"The contract part of it is always a pain in the neck for everybody, but that's the business," said McPhee.
"They're good players. If they do really well, we'll do our best to sign them," he said.
"You'd rather have that problem than guys who can't play."
Say this about Ovechkin, Semin and Backstrom: They can play.