- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Washington Capitals cemented a deal with another young building block yesterday but acknowledged the process of rebuilding their foundation is far from over.

The Caps officially signed center Nicklas Backstrom, who turns 20 in November, to a three-year, entry level contract that could earn him as much as $4 million a year. The Caps drafted the Sweden native fourth overall last June.

Backstrom, rookie of the year a season ago for Brynas in the adult Swedish Elite League, is said to be a smart, highly skilled playmaker with exceptional hockey sense and an excellent skater who is adept defensively.

He lacks only one thing the Caps were looking for in their search for a quality center: He is not right-handed. The club wants a pivot who can maximize the potential of left wings Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin, and a right-hander might be better suited.

“He really distributes the puck very well,” general manager George McPhee said. “He doesn’t overhandle it. [He] gets it and makes the right play, but he’s poised enough to wait for the right play to materialize.”

Ovechkin and Semin combined for 84 goals last season, but the feeling was the Russian stars might have done better getting feeds from a top-flight center. Washington is hoping Backstrom is that player.

“The question is premature,” coach Glen Hanlon said when asked which wing Backstrom would play with. “He’s going to play with one of the two of them, and then once we see if there are any other additions in the middle, we’ll see what fits.”

This offseason, the Caps still want to add another offensive-minded center who can play on the first line and at least two quality defensemen.

“We’ve got lots of [personnel] work to do,” McPhee said. “We have a real good young core, some veterans, but we really need to add some more [veterans] to make the team better. We’ll be aggressive this summer talking to other teams, seeing what’s going on with trades, see what develops at the draft and free agency.”

The promises of change from McPhee and majority owner Ted Leonsis come after the Caps finished with 70 points for the second straight season and were 14th in the 15-team Eastern Conference.

The general manager would not be specific yesterday, but the prominent mention of trades is a new twist. McPhee has shied away from swapping players after being burned a few times, preferring to promote within his own organization or pick up low-cost free agents.

“There are a lot of ways to address our needs,” McPhee said. “We’ll see if we can do a few things through trades before it comes to [free agency]. But we’ve done our homework in that area. We’ll meet again at the end of the month and put together a strategy.”

McPhee did not ignore the Hershey Bears, who have a 2-0 lead in their best-of-seven American Hockey League semifinal series against the Manchester Monarchs. The Bears are the defending Calder Cup champions.

“They’re playing very well, and we have some players who have developed very well,” he said. “Some are exceeding expectations, and I would expect at least three or four of those guys, maybe more, will play here next year.”



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