Nicklas Backstrom to lace up for 500th game against Panthers

Teammate, star center, father, Olympian, mentor to the Capitals newest breakout star – plenty of labels can be applied to 26-year-old Washington forward Nicklas Backstrom. Tonight, he’ll join the NHL’s 500 (games played) club.

“I think it’s great,” Backstrom said. “I mean, I can only say that it’s gone so fast and felt like yesterday I was playing my first game.”

Drafted fourth overall in 2006 behind such stars as Jonathan Toews and Jordan Staal, Backstrom often skates under the radar, despite placing eighth on Washington’s all-time points list. Last season, he finished 11th in the NHL scoring race and ranked third in the league in assists, trailing only Sidney Crosby and Joe Thornton.

Regardless of his lower-profile – at least relative to his accomplishments – Backstrom certainly has high-profile – and very vocal – admirers.

“I’m a big advocate of his,” Caps coach Barry Trotz, who cited Backstrom’s hockey IQ as one of his best assets, said. “As I say, he’s one of the most complete players in the National Hockey League. Under the radar, doesn’t get any fanfare, doesn’t get a lot of the love that he should around the league. Yeah, I’m going to beat the drum, because a point a game in your first 500 games, 499 I should say because he hasn’t played the 500th, but you get a point a game, that’s a pretty darn good career.”

While last year certainly featured extreme highs (the birth of his first child) and lows (the Capitals missing the playoffs and the doping controversy at the 2014 Olympics), Backstrom, playing pivot for one of the league’s most dangerous snipers, seems poised to have another excellent season, especially with everyone in the organization buying into the new culture established by Trotz.

“Obviously we’ve got a new style in here now, a new attitude I think in the team, so that’s great,” he said.

While lacing up for 500 games in the NHL is an accomplishment no matter where one plays, Backstrom noted that he is grateful that he has the opportunity to play another season for the Caps.

“I’m happy that I played 500 here, the same club,” he said. “I mean, I have my heart and soul here in Washington, so it’s an honor for me to represent this team.”

Backstrom noted that playing for Washington has provided him with many learning experiences, especially from a former mentor, Michael Nylander.

“I’ve been playing with a lot of different players and I learned a lot from a lot of players as well,” Backstrom said. “So, it’s been great and obviously this group of guys we have right now, it’s amazing as well.”

The young, fresh-faced center hardly looks like the seasoned veteran that he is, which makes his role as mentor seem surprising.

“It feels good,” he said of guiding some of his younger teammates. “As you said, I’m not that old, but I’ve been here for almost eight years now, so it’s nice to see younger guys come up and obviously both Marcus (Johansson) and Andre (Burakovsky) are Swedish guys, so sometimes it’s easier to ask questions in Swedish than English.”

Riding a three-game point streak, and one point away from his 500th career point, Backstrom mused on his first NHL point.

“I think it was a power play, right, against Atlanta?” he said. “I remember that pretty good actually. I remember I gave the puck to Michael Nylander and he fired off a shot, it wasn’t that hard…somehow it went in.”

Facing an old Southeast Division foe against which he has tallied 41 points in 36 career games, Backstrom would appear to have a pretty good chance to join two 500 clubs tonight when Washington faces off against the Florida Panthers.