- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 25, 2006

The Washington Capitals added another piece to the puzzle last night when they used the fourth overall pick of the NHL draft to grab center Nicklas Backstrom, one of the budding stars of the Swedish Elite League.

In Backstrom, a smallish, but highly skilled 18-year-old, the Caps may have found a gifted playmaker to pair with 2005-06 rookie of the year Alex Ovechkin — the first pick of the 2004 draft.

St. Louis made defenseman Erik Johnson the first overall pick of this year’s draft. Next, Pittsburgh selected center Jordan Staal — whose brothers Eric and Marc play for the Carolina Hurricanes and N.Y. Rangers, respectively. Chicago used the third pick to draft center/win Jonathan Toews. Then came the Caps’ pick.

The 6-foot, 183-pound Backstrom was named rookie of the year in the Swedish league while playing for Brynas, recording 10 goals and 26 points in 46 games, very good totals for European hockey.

Backstrom also played for the Swedish men’s team that captured the world championship in May. He was the youngest Swede ever to play in those games. The squad was coached by former Cap great Bengt Gustafsson, who also coached Sweden to gold in the Winter Olympics.

Backstrom had sparkling recommendations from every scouting service associated with the draft. One rated him second overall (Johnson was the unanimous top pick) and none rated him lower than fifth. The NHL’s only scouting service rated him the top European prospect.

Backstrom is not expected to play for the Caps this season, but that has not been ruled out. General manager George McPhee said before the draft that he didn’t think any of the prospects available this summer would be ready to immediately step in as Ovechkin did.

The Caps’ prized forward took on additional duties last night at the G.M. Place in Vancouver, taking McPhee’s place at the podium and announcing the team’s first two picks. Washington used the 23rd pick of the opening round to grab Russian goalie Semen Varlamov, who had a goals-against average of 1.81 for his junior team last season.

The Caps took Czech goalie Michal Neuvirth, right wing Francois Bouchard of Baie Comeau in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and defenseman Keith Seabrook of Burnaby, B.C., in the second round. In the fourth they selected left wing Oskar Osala — a Finn playing for Mississauga in the Ontario Hockey League — and Luke Lynes, a center from Ellicott City, Md., who is playing for Brampton in the OHL.

Barring major surprises, few of yesterday’s draftees will be ready to help the Caps for several seasons which still leaves a multiple of holes to fill, either internally with prospects already in the system or through free agency.

The Caps will spend the rest of the offseason addressing needs which include at least two experienced defensemen, a forceful presence to ensure skill players are not run over on a nightly basis, a backup goalie if Brent Johnson decides to play elsewhere and a right wing with decided offensive leanings.

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