In Alex Ovechkin, the Washington Capitals believed they had drafted the player who would be the cornerstone of their efforts to reignite the franchise. But he wasn't enough.
Not by a long shot.
A roster purge during the 2003-04 season signaled the start of a major rebuilding project. Veterans were traded. Draft picks were accumulated. Young players were acquired. And Ovechkin was selected with the first pick of the 2004 draft.
Because of the NHL lockout the following year, the scouting staff could spend all of its energy on evaluating amateur prospects. That mindset took them to the world junior championships in Grand Forks, N.D., and Thief River Falls, Minn.
The objective: Find a distributor who could team with Ovechkin.
“We were saying, 'We need a center to get this guy the puck,' ” recalls Steve Richmond, the team's director of player development.
That's how the Caps found Nicklas Backstrom.
Then a 17-year old center in Sweden, Backstrom was that dynamic, his passes that crisp, his surveying of the ice that uncanny and his game that complete.
“Five of us were watching the game, and after one shift we said, 'You got to be kidding me. Did he do what we think he just did?' ” Richmond says. “His passes were on the money and in great position. He was just so good.”
In 2006, Backstrom was drafted fourth overall by the Caps. He has become just what the team envisioned: the pivot who makes everybody around him better, who is able to log minutes in a variety of situations and who can win a faceoff directly to the sharpshooting Ovechkin.
Backstrom finished fourth in the NHL with 66 assists and tied for ninth with 88 points. He will be integral if the Capitals want to win their first postseason series since 1998. They open the playoffs this week against the New York Rangers.
“This year, he knows exactly what he's doing all the time, and he's going to be one of the best,” Caps coach Bruce Boudreau says. “I know [Pittsburgh's Sidney] Crosby gets all the publicity, but, boy, Nick's a good player.”
'He could be huge'
The gold standard for Swedish hockey is Peter Forsberg, the center who won two Stanley Cups and two gold medals.
“I can honestly tell you he's probably more famous than our Swedish king,” Backstrom says. “Everybody knows him. He's just huge.”