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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Backstrom vs. Forsberg

Nicklas Bäckström has often been compared to his countryman Peter Forsberg.  Forsberg is a hockey legend, this is not a comparison that should be made lightly.  I will take a look at their beginnings and their first three NHL seasons to see if the comparisons are justified. 

The Beginning
#21 Peter Forsberg

Peter Mattias Forsberg, known as "Foppa" in Sweden, was born July 20, 1973 in Örnsköldsvik, Sweden.  He stands 6', 205, and is a left-shooting centerman.  His father was his coach in Sweden and was the national team coach. He was drafted by the Philadelphia Flyers with the 6th overall pick in the 1991 Enrty Draft and is considered arguably the best center in that draft.  He was traded to Quebec as part of the deal that sent #1 overall pick, center Eric Lindros, to Philly.  He began his NHL career at age 21 with the Nordiques during the strike-shortened 1994-95 season in French-speaking Quebec City. 

#19 Nicklas Bäckström

Nicklas Lars Bäckström, known as "Backis" in Sweden, was born November 23, 1987 in Gavle, Sweden.  He stands 6'1, 210, and is a left-shooting centerman.  His father, Anders, was a New York Rangers draft pick played 10 seasons of professional hockey.  He was drafted by the Washington Capitals with the 4th overall pick in the 2006 Entry Draft and is considered the best center from that draft.  He began his NHL career at age 19 with the Capitals during the 2007-08 season.

Comparison:  They are similarly sized players with the same handedness at the same position.  Both have strong pedigrees and grew up in the Swedish system.  Both were highly touted prospects and were taken very early in their respective drafts. 

Pre-Entry Draft Career
During his draft year of 1990-91, Forsberg played professionally for his hometown team MoDo, both for the junior team and in the Elitserien, the top professional league in Sweden, also known as the Swedish Elite League (SEL), a league full of former and future NHLers.  Forsberg had played one game in the Elitserien as a 16-year old the previous season and recorded an assist and 4 penalty minutes.  In his draft year, Foppa posted 7 goals and 17 points in 23 SEL games and lit the junior circuit on fire with 38 goals and 102 points in 39 games. 

Brynäs IF Gavle

Bäckström played professionally for his hometown team Brynäs in the Elitserien during his draft year.  He had played 19 SEL games in 2004-05 as a 16-17 year old with no points and 2 PIM.  During his draft year of 2005-06, Backis led the team in scoring with 10 goals and 26 points in 46 games.  He also scored a goal in four playoff games. He was named the Elitserien rookie of the year.

Comparison:  While Forsberg was very precocious, Bäckström had the better draft year in the Elitserien.  Part of that may have to do with the quality of his team, though, as Forsberg's MoDo was loaded with NHL players while Brynäs only had a few, though MoDo did not make the playoffs.  Bäckström was also the older player in his draft year by 9 months. 

Post-Draft Season and Pre-NHL
In 1991-92, his first season after his draft year, Forsberg played 39 of 40 games and scored 9 goals and 27 points, good for fourth on MoDo, and 78 PIM.  The leading scorer was his good friend Markus Naslund.  MoDo missed the playoffs.  The two made the paper Aftonbladet because of their rough style of play. 


Forsberg  played two more 39-game seasons with MoDo and part of the 1994-95 season while the NHL was locked out. He won back-to-back Elitserien MVP awards in 1992-93 (47 points, 92 PIM) and 1993-94 (44 points, 82 PIM), the first of these came at age 19.  For his SEL career, Foppa scored 62 goals and 150 points in 152 games along with 298 PIM.  He added another 13 goals and 21 points in 14 playoff games, including an OT winner in the Elitserien Final in 1994.

MoDo HK Örnsköldsvik

Bäckström played one more year in the Elitserien and again led Brynäs in scoring with 12 goals and 40 points in 45 games as an 18-19 year old.  He also posted 3 goals and 6 points in 7 playoff games.  Bäckström ended his 110-game SEL career with 22 goals, 66 points, and 78 PIM, plus 4 goals and 7 points in 11 playoff games.

Post-Draft Season Comparison:  In the season after their draft years, Bäckström was again the better player, easily, and his team made the playoffs.  He was counted on to be the top center, though, while Forsberg was on a team with more veterans.  Bäckström was still the older player by 9 months, which also contributes to having more success against older men. 

Overall, Forsberg had the much better pre-NHL career.  He also took far more penalties. 

Pre-NHL International Play
Forsberg represented Sweden at 5 major international tournaments before coming to the NHL, and he won 5 medals.  He won silver at the 1992 World Junior Tournament and he was the second leading scorer with 11 points in 7 games behind countryman Michael Nylander.  Sweden took gold at the 1992 World Championships (6 points in 8 games) and silver in 1993 (2 points in 8 games).  It was Forsberg versus the world at the 1993 World Juniors held in 6-year old Nicklas Bäckström's hometown of Gavle, Sweden.  Forsberg was named best forward as he scored a tournament record 24 assists and 31 points in 7 games, but Sweden still only took silver.  Forsberg also set up linemate Naslund for a tournament record 13 goals.  Forsberg's biggest tournament was of course the 1994 Olympics held in Norway where he scored 8 points in 8 games.  He scored two shootout goals in the gold medal game against Canada, the second of which sealed the win and was immortalized on a postage stamp. 

Corey Hirsch refused to be immortalized as a loser.

Bäckström played in the 2006 World Championships during his draft year and appeared in 4 games, including the final match, as Sweden took home the gold medal.  At the 2007 World Juniors held in Leksand, Sweden, Bäckström recorded 7 assists in 7 games, good for second in the tournament, as Sweden lost in the bronze medal game.  Backis appeared at the World Championships in 2007 and recorded 1 goal and 6 points in 9 games as Sweden again lost in the bronze medal game.  While this isn't pre-NHL, it is important to note that Bäckström appeared in the 2008 World Championships at age 20 and recorded 3 goals and 7 points as Sweden again lost in the bronze medal game. 

Comparison:  There really isn't a comparison here:  Forsberg is on a freaking postage stamp.  Bäckström has a solid international resume and actually played in the World Championships at a younger age than Forsberg did, though he didn't have much of a role.  And to be fair, Forsberg had quite a few of his 31 points at the World Juniors in a 20-1 win over Japan.  The most interesting comparison here is the 19-year old Forsberg at the 1992 World Championships (4 goals, 6 points, in 8 games) and the 19-year old Bäckström in 2007 (1 goal, 6 points in 9 games).  Another interesting note is the 20-year olds at the Worlds, Bäckström with 7 points in 9 games in 2008 and Forsberg with 2 in 8 games in 1993. 

Note on NHL Rookie Seasons
To be fair, Nicklas Bäckström began his rookie NHL season at age 19 years 10 months, while Forbserg was 22 months older at age 21 years 6 months.  It would be more fair to compare Bäckström's second season, or even his third season, with Forsberg's rookie season, but the problem there is Forsberg's rookie season was the strike-shortened 1994-95 season.  I will explore their first three NHL seasons in an order I think makes sense.

2007-08, Bäckström's rookie season
Nicklas Bäckström entered the NHL 6 weeks shy of his 20th birthday.  A natural center, Backis was started on the wing for his first 21 games under head coach Glen Hanlon.  Hanlon employed a defensive system and the Capitals stumbled off to a 6-14-1 start after three consecutive last-place finishes in the Southeast Division.  Bäckström scored just 1 goal and 9 points in those 21 games before new coach Bruce Boudreau was brought on board and moved Backis back to center.

In his first game as an NHL center, he had two assists and scored the overtime winner against rival Philadelphia.  He would center star winger Alexander Ovechkin and Viktor Kozlov for most of the rest of the season as Ovie set an NHL left-winger record 65 goals and put the Caps into the playoffs with a division title on the last day of the regular season.  Backis would do this as the only true scoring center on the team for part of the season as Michael Nylander was hurt midway through the season and Sergei Fedorov was acquired only for the final 18 games of the season.  Ovechkin finished the year as the league's leading goal scorer and point scorer with 112, his other linemate Kozlov had 16 goals and 54 points.

Bäckström did not miss a game and scored 14 goals and 69 points. His 55 assists led the Capitals, it led all league rookies, it was a Capitals rookie record, and it was 11th best overall in the league.   His 69 points was second among league rookies, second on the Capitals, and second-best in team history by a rookie. He finished with a +13 rating and only 24 PIM.  He also tied a team record with 4 assists by a rookie in one game, and did it in consecutive games (1/19 and 1/21) to give him a three game stretch with 1 goal and 9 points.  His 55 assists led all rookies (and was 11th overall in the league) and his 69 points was second and he finished second in rookie of the year voting and was named to the NHL All-Rookie Team.  He had a 9.2% shooting percentage on 153 shots (1.86 per game).

He would score 4 goals and 6 points in 7 playoff games as the #3 seed Caps fell in the first round to the Philadelphia Flyers.  Those totals are the second best in team playoff history among rookies. 

In his final 47 regular season games, Bäckström scored 8 goals and 46 points.

1994-95, Forsberg's Rookie Season
Forsberg began his NHL career on January 21, 1995 after playing 11 games for MoDo in the Elitserien.  His Quebec Nordiques finished first in the Eastern Conference (30-13-5, 65 points) and only behind the Detroit Red Wings in the standings.  They were also the leading goal-scoring team (185) and had the second best goal differential at +51.  He was the #2 center on the team behind Joe Sakic, who drew most of the tough checkers, and was the second leading scorer with 15 goals and 50 points in 47 games.  He missed one game with an illness.  He lead all rookies in assists and points and won the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year and a spot on the NHL All-Rookie Team.  His 35 assists was 2nd on the Nordiques and tied for 10th in the league.  He also finished with a +17 and 16 PIM.  He had a 9.2% shooting percentage on 153 shots (1.86 per game).

Forsberg in Quebec

His Nordiques lost in 6 games to the defending champion New York Rangers in the playoffs.  Forsberg scored 2 goals and 6 points.

2008-09, Bäckström's Sophomore Season
In 2008-09, Bäckström would finally become old enough to have a beer, turning 21 in November.  He played all 82 games and scored 22 goals and 88 points, again second-best on the team behind his linemate Ovechkin, who scored 110 points and a league leading 56 goals.  His other linemate, Viktor Kozlov, finishe the year with 13 goals and 41 points.  He was the #10 leading scorer in the league and his 66 assists were tied for 3rd.  His 66 assists was also good for third best in team history.  He scored 14 powerplay goals on the #2 powerplay in the league.  He had a 12.6% shooting percentage on 174 shots (2.12 per game).  He had 46 PIM and a +16. 

The Capitals won 50 games and the division handily, finishing with the #2 seed in the East and the second-most goals in the league.  They made it to the second round of the playoffs before losing to eventual champion Pittsburgh.  Bäckström finished second on the team with 15 points in 14 playoff games and second in team post-season history with 12 assists, which also tied for 7th in the league despite only playing two rounds.  He scored points in 11 of 14 games.  Perhaps his most important game of the playoffs was Game 3 of the opening round against the New York Rangers.  The heavily favored Capitals were down 2-0 in the series and Bäckström put on a display with 3 assists, including one where he decked a Ranger defender with a counter-hit before dishing a one-timer pass to Alex Semin on the game-winning goal and another assist where he circled in the corner and threw a no-look, backhanded saucer pass to the tape of defenseman Tom Poti in the slot. 

1995-96, Forsberg's Sophomore Season
The Quebec Nordiques were sold and moved to Denver, Colorado.  They changed their name to the Avalanche.  They also moved from the Eastern to the Western Conference.  The 22-year old Forsberg appeared in all 82 games for the only time in his career.  He scored 30 goals, 7 goals on the powerplay and 3 while shorthanded.  He posted an amazing 116 points, good for 2nd on the team behind Sakic, and 5th in the league.  His 86 assists placed him 4th in the league and 2nd in franchise history, and 1st on the team. He finished with 47 PIM and a +26 rating as Colorado won the Pacific Division with 47 wins and finished second in team scoring.   Foppa had a 13.8% shooting percentage on 217 shots (2.65 per game).

The 1996 Colorado Avalanche

The Colorado Avalanche won the Stanley Cup that Spring behind an MVP performance from captain Joe Sakic, who scored 18 goals and 34 points.  Forsberg finished 3rd on the team in playoff scoring with 10 goals and 21 points in 22 playoff games.  He also had a +10 defensive rating and 18 PIM.  One of the defining moments of the playoffs was him turning countryman and legend Nicklas Lidstrom inside out by putting the puck between his legs before scoring on Chris Osgood.  He also had a hat trick in the Stanley Cup Final against Florida. 

2009-10, Bäckström's Third Season
The rising 22-year old Nicklas Bäckström's third NHL season saw marked improvement in his shooting.  He had a 14.9% shooting percentage on 222 shots (2.71 per game).  He scored a personal best 33 goals and 68 assists for 101 points.  He finished 4th in the league in points and 3rd in assists.  His 68 assists were third best in team history and 101 points were 7th.  He led the team in assists and was second in points, behind his linemate Ovechkin, who had 50 goals and 109 points.  His other regular linemate was 37-year old Mike Knuble, who scored 29 goals and 53 points.  He also finished 4th in the league with a +37 and he also had 50 PIM.  The Capitals won the Presidents' Trophy handily, winning 54 games, and led the league in scoring, goal differential and power play effectiveness.  Bäckström led the team in powerplay scoring with 37 points, including 11 goals.  If not for his linemates missing a month each, he may have done even more damage. 

The Capitals are up 2-1 in their first round series against #8 Montreal.  Bäckström has 4 goals and 6 points.  He has points in all three games, including a monster Game 2 that saw him cap off a 4-point night with his hat trick goal in overtime to keep the Capitals from going down 2-0 in the series. 

1996-97, Forsberg's Third Season
The Avalanche won the Presidents' Trophy with 49 wins and finished second in team scoring.  Peter Forsberg missed 17 games with a bruised thigh.  He got into the first and only fight of his NHL career against Detroit's Martin Lapointe.  He finished the season with 28 goals and 86 points.  He led the Avalanche in assists (58) and points.  He finished tied for 9th in the league in assists and tied for 11th in points despite the time off.  He also had a +31 rating, which tied for 10th in the league, and 73 PIM.  He had a 14.9% shooting percentage on 188 shots (2.89 per game).  One of the defining moments of the season for him came when he was elbowed in the mouth by Stars defenseman Derian Hatcher, then responded a few minutes later with a clean but devastating hit on Joe Nieuwendyk that sidelined him for 12 games.  

The Avalanche advanced to the Western Conference Final and fell to their rival, the Red Wings, who won the Stanley Cup.  Forsberg had 5 goals and 17 points in 14 games.

Peter Forsberg had a tremendous hockey career in the NHL, in Sweden, and on the international stage.  He played 706 NHL games and scored 249 goals and 636 assists for 885 points and another 64 goals and 171 points in 151 playoff games.  His points per game average is 9th all-time and his assists per game average is 4th.  He was NHL MVP and led the league in assists, points, and +/- in 2003.  He was the 1st Team NHL All-Star 3 times (1998, 1999, 2003).  He has won 2 Stanley Cups, 2 Olympic Gold Medals, 2 Elitserien MVPs, NHL rookie of the year, and so on.  His career was marked by a rough and tumble nature and lots of injuries.  He spent the majority of his career in the shadow of Joe Sakic, which usually meant he wasn't always even the best center on his team.  He was solid at both ends of the ice.  He also had the versatility to play left winger, and often flanked Sakic. 

Nicklas Bäckström has played 246 NHL games and has scored 69 goals and 189 assists for 258 points, plus another 11 goals and 27 points in 24 playoff games.  He has never missed a game and has a knack for scoring big goals in overtime.  He is usually gentlemanly on the ice, but he has a knack for getting physical at the right time.  He is a sound defensive player, as well.  He has spent his career so far in the shadow of his teammate Alex Ovechkin, but he is the undoubted #1 center in Washington.  He has no official NHL accolades other than his All-Rookie team spot, but he was SEL Rookie of the Year in 2006 and won the Viking Award as the best Swedish player in North America in 2009. 

Overall Comparison
Nicklas Bäckström does not appear to be behind Forsberg much, if at all, in his development as an NHL superstar.  If anything, he is ahead in many ways.  Backis has done better at a younger age than Forsberg did, and if he can stay healthy, he should have a long and rewarding career that will outlast Foppa's.  He may never be immortalized on a postage stamp or bulldoze someone the way Foppa did, and he certainly does not have the stare, but he possesses all the ice water in his veins, the composure, the flair for the dramatic and back breaking play, and the sublime vision and passing skills that leave your jaw on the floor.  So far, all indications are that Bäckström will match Forsberg as he progresses in his career, especially if the Capitals can ice a true number-two center to take some of the checking pressure off him.  The major difference is that Backis has had to be the leading man more than Foppa did at the same age. 


  1. Interesting piece, unfortunately it has a hugely flawed premise - it was Forsberg, and not Sakic, who invariably drew the other team's toughest D. Also, Forsberg played in the dead-puck era, so a straight stats comparison is of limited value. Guys like Pronger, Matvichuk, Hatcher, etc. were literally allowed to assault him on almost every play and the refs just invariably swallowed the whistle.

    In his time, Forsberg was the most physically dominant player in the game - not a matter of opinion, but objective fact, as evidenced by what opposing players (Mario Lemieux, Keith Jones, Ray Ferraro, Ron Francis, Ray Bourque, etc.) said about him, or which defensive assignments he drew from opposing coaches (Ken Hitchcock, Scotty Bowman, Sutter, etc.).

    I love Backstrom, but he's no Peter Forsberg - but that's no shame, few if any in hockey history are.

  2. I'll second Jimmy...I like Backstrom but he's no Peter Forsberg. I think I have seen all Forsberg's games since Qubeck and many of Backstroms and trust me he's no Forsberg. Just as simple as that.

  3. I appreciate the feedback, and you are right, this was the dead puck era we are talking about, to a point.

    In 1995-96, there were:
    2 60+ goal scorers
    8 50+ goal scorers
    18 40+ goal scorers
    2 140+ point scorers
    5 115+ point scorers
    12 100+ point scorers

    The league leader scored 69 goals and 161 points.

    In 2009-10, there were:
    0 60+ goal scorers
    3 50+ goal scorers
    7 40+ goal scorers
    0 140+ point scorers
    0 115+ point scorers
    4 100+ point scorers

    The league leaders scored 51 goals and 112 points.

    And yes, Forsberg drew the tougher checking assignments later in his career, but not while he was a rookie. It is invariably easier to produce goals from your top line when you have an effective second line, much like having two consecutive power hitters in your baseball lineup, like Manny and Papi in Boston.

    I would agree that Forsberg was a physically dominant forward, and he was allowed to hit back in the same way he was assaulted, and those rules that let him be assaulted surely contributed to his defensive prowess when he did the same thing to others. As for the most physically dominant of his era, that is arguable (see: Lindros, Eric; Tkachuk, Keith; Shanahan, Brendan; Messier, Mark; Roberts, Gary; Neely, Cam). To be sure, I often thought an Alex Ovechkin-Peter Forsberg comparison might be in line while I was writing this. If there is one thing he lacks from Forsberg, it is the physical side, but I'm not complaining as I'm sure it contributed to Foppa's injury problems.

    You are absolutely correct that a straight stats comparison is of limited value, hence the comparison of league rank, ranks on his team, ranks among rookies, ranks in team history, etc.

    I appreciate all the feedback and I like the discussion. Please keep it coming. I'd love to see your reasoning behind your comment.

    Please remember, I am comparing their production and development over their first three NHL seasons, I am not comparing Backstrom to Forsberg later in his career (at least not until next year). I know Backstrom has a different playing style than Forsberg, too, and a much different presence on the ice. They are each unique in their styles, it is their effectiveness and dominance I am comparing.