- The Washington Times - Friday, January 23, 2009

When the 30 NHL teams convened in Vancouver for the 2006 draft, the focus was on who wasn’t available.

There was no Sidney Crosby in this draft, no Alex Ovechkin in the pool of eligible amateurs. The player who had been anointed the top prospect months before was sliding in mock drafts.

Yet as the NHL breaks for its All-Star Game less than three years removed from that day at GM Place, this has become clear about the Class of 2006: Led by a group of centers at the top, it is a much, much better group than some expected.

“It was a very good draft,” Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee said. “If you are trying to compare to a draft that has Crosby or Ovechkin in it, it is never going to meet those expectations, because those players come along once in a generation.”

Defenseman Erik Johnson went No. 1 to St. Louis. He may become a franchise blue liner, but he will miss this season because of a freak knee injury suffered on a golf cart in September. Then the draft really got interesting: Five centers were expected to go in the next five picks - and they have become the core of this class.

One by one they went - Jordan Staal to Pittsburgh, Jonathan Toews to Chicago, Nicklas Backstrom to Washington, Phil Kessel to Boston and Derick Brassard to Columbus - and each has solidified his place as a cornerstone.

“It really has ended up being a great draft for centers,” Chicago general manager Dale Tallon said. “Even further down - guys like Peter Mueller [No. 8 to Phoenix] and Bryan Little [No. 12 to Atlanta] - there were eight centers drafted in the first 12 picks, and they’re all good players.”

The fab five have developed at different rates and into different roles. Staal starred first - potting 29 goals as an 18-year-old in 2006-07 and finishing third in voting for the Calder Trophy, the NHL’s rookie of the year award.

Toews and Backstrom spent another year developing before coming to the NHL, but both were smash hits last year and Calder finalists. Kessel also played in the league in 2006-07, but he had two middling seasons before busting out this year with 24 goals at the break despite missing five games with mononucleosis.

Brassard is the only one of the five to spend significant time in the American Hockey League, but he was the front-runner for the Calder this year, posting 25 points in 31 games, before his season ended when he separated his right shoulder in a fight.

Toews was voted a starter for the Western Conference in Sunday’s All-Star Game at Bell Centre in Montreal. Backstrom was invited to the YoungStars Game for a second time, but he declined. He and Kessel are probably the two most deserving forwards in the Eastern Conference who were left off the team, in part because the league wanted every team represented.

“Everyone got who they wanted, and there really isn’t a big difference between the players,” McPhee said of the draft. “Everybody did well. Everybody got a good player. … There usually is someone who comes away with a letdown.”

When the Caps put together their final rankings for the draft, they, like most other teams, had Johnson rated No. 1. But their No. 2 was the baby-faced playmaker from Sweden - who had to skip the predraft combine in Toronto because he was busy winning a gold medal at the world championships.

Even though the Caps’ brass didn’t get to meet Backstrom in Toronto, scouting director Ross Mahoney said the franchise’s Swedish scout, Mats Weiderstal, had been watching him for more than a year and had done extensive background work.

It was one of the top moments of the day when Alex Ovechkin - not a high-ranking team official, as per the norm - went to the podium to announce the Caps’ selection. It took only about 18 months for Backstrom to settle into a spot in the middle of Ovechkin’s line, a place the Caps expect him to be for years to come.

“George’s philosophy has always been to take the best player,” Mahoney said. “We thought Nicklas was the best player available to us. Sure, Phil Kessel at that time was probably considered to be more of a goal scorer and was a center/right winger. Nicklas was a center with such a high degree of hockey sense and unselfishness. We did have the feeling that, if we had an opportunity to take Nicklas, that he would be a good fit for Alex.”

More than a year before that draft, Kessel had been deemed the next “Next One” - a popular nickname for Crosby at the time. But Kessel’s stock began to drop during his freshman season at the University of Minnesota. Johnson had outperformed him at the world junior championship, so Kessel’s landing on draft day was a bit of a mystery.

Still, he had the name recognition and hype. After Staal and Toews were off the board, it was Backstrom or Kessel for the Caps - though McPhee knew which way his franchise was going.

“We just thought that playmaking centers are harder to come by than wingers,” he said. “Obviously Kessel has turned into a real good player, and if Backstrom wasn’t there we probably would have taken him. But to find someone who can play in the middle and make plays like Backstrom does… playmakers are hard to find.”

This season has proved to be a great one for this group. Staal rebounded from a lackluster sophomore season and recently put his signature on a four-year, $16 million contract extension. Toews was named captain of the Blackhawks before the season; he and Patrick Kane have led Chicago to one of the most improved records (25-12-8) at the break.

Backstrom shook off a slow start and leads the Class of 2006 with 48 points. Kessel has found his place at right wing; his devastating combination of speed and soft hands has helped him flourish.

Even though Brassard is out for the season, he and fellow rookie Steve Mason - a third-rounder in 2006 who has taken his teammate’s place as the leading candidate for rookie of the year - have provided hope for a franchise that still hasn’t appeared in the playoffs.

“I met a lot of the guys who were expected to be in the top 10,” Backstrom said. “I think it is really good. Toews is [a] captain; Staal is a top defensive player for Pittsburgh - I think everybody has different roles. It is kind of good like that, I think. It was a really good group.”

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