- The Washington Times - Monday, June 26, 2006

Less than 24 hours after he used the fourth overall pick in Saturday’s NHL daft on Swedish center Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee said yesterday he thinks his top pick may play in the NHL this fall.

“We have no doubt he can play this year,” McPhee said of Backstrom, who turns 19 in November and has already been playing in the Swedish Elite League. “We believe he will be a No. 1 center in the NHL. He’s a clever, poised playmaking center who makes players around him better.”

If McPhee is correct, that is what Washington fans have waited to hear for years. The last excellent playmaking center the club had, Adam Oates, was traded more than four years ago and has since retired.

When the Caps took Backstrom, they passed on Phil Kessel — a player who had a reputation of being a more prolific goal scorer, among other things. What the Caps were looking for was a player who could see the ice well and feed others and occasionally score himself.

The 6-foot, 183-pound Backstrom — small for the NHL, but sturdy — was the rookie of the year in his country’s top league and played well enough to make the Swedish national team that won the World Championship in May. Size has become less of a factor in the NHL since the introduction of new rules that eliminate clutching and grabbing.

Where he plays and with whom are now the questions that await answers, as well as whether Backstrom wants to come to America now.

“Who he plays with, if he makes it, will be determined by how camp goes,” McPhee said. “You never know who is going to play well with whom. All we know right now is that he is a very good playmaking center, the type of player every club covets, and we’re very happy to have him.”

Washington has two gifted left wings in Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin and the possibility of a third in Tomas Fleischmann. But the team lacks skilled pivots.

Dainius Zubrus, a converted right wing, had been used as the first line center and may stay there depending on Backstrom’s availability and how and where chemistry develops. Kris Beech was a standout at center for Hershey in its American Hockey League championship run, but there are questions on whether he can continue that at a higher level.

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