- The Washington Times - Friday, July 13, 2007

One day into his first rookie camp with the Washington Capitals, 19-year-old Nicklas Backstrom already was putting his autograph on everything from hats to seat cushions.

Backstrom may not have been completely satisfied with his showing in Tuesday night’s scrimmage on the first day of rookie camp, but that didn’t deter the fans and media assembled at Kettler Iceplex. The Swedish center displayed his superior skating but was hesitant at times with the puck. He left the rink with a stoic look on his face, while sweat dripped from his blond locks onto his freshly minted No. 19 jersey.

The fourth pick from the 2006 draft is expected to be a centerpiece of the Caps’ future and make an immediate impact this season on the same line as either Alex Ovechkin or Alexander Semin.

But assessing his play from that first scrimmage, Backstrom said, “Not so good. I hope it is going to be better by the weekend.”

It really did not matter. It will be forgotten quickly.

The important thing is that Backstrom is in camp after deciding against jumping to the NHL last season in favor of playing one more season in his homeland. He stayed in Sweden to mature on and off the ice before heading overseas for the rigors of an 82-game schedule against the world’s top players.

The left-handed pass-first center is spending his summer living in a hotel, watching and learning about American staples like baseball on television and getting a crash course on the NHL. Backstrom already has thrown out the first pitch at a Nationals game. This week, he is beginning his NHL education in a more familiar arena.

“I think I have to be more physical,” the 6-foot, 183-pounder said. “Maybe I have to be a little faster on my skates, my quickness. This is the most important right now. Everything can be better.”

Backstrom is expected to be part of a core along with Ovechkin, Semin and this year’s first-round pick, defender Karl Alzner, that eventually will turn the struggling franchise into a championship contender. The speedy Swede will have a tutor to look up to at center as the Caps signed free agent center Michael Nylander earlier this month.

“That is good for me because I am Swedish, too,” Backstrom said. “So I can ask him advice. It will make it a little easier for me.”

This week is more about an orientation to the Caps’ system than anything. In addition to adjusting to a higher level of play and a new country, Backstrom will have to adjust to a narrower rink.

“He has good skills and someone who knows his way around the rink,” Caps coach Glen Hanlon said. “We are just taking our time with him.”

The coach said it is way too early to assess Backstrom and what his role will be this season. That will happen in the fall.

For now, Hanlon is impressed with the makeup of the league’s third-ranked prospect (according to the Hockey News). Backstrom tallied 12 goals and 28 assists in 45 games last season for Byrnas of the Swedish Elite League after being named that league’s top rookie two years earlier.

“It seems like most of the Swedish players who come over here are kind of the same,” Hanlon said. “They are all quality people. They are all dedicated players. They are all unselfish players and take as much pride in both sides of the rink. That is kind of what he has shown us so far here.”

Backstrom is a well-known commodity in international hockey. Alzner, a Canadian who played against Backstrom’s Swedish squad in junior hockey, has seen the center dissect opposing defenses.

“He’s very slick with the puck,” said Alzner, the No. 5 pick this spring. “He’s very smart with the puck. He knows when to move it and when not to move it. His hands are good. He is one of those guys that just thinks the game really well, and he is always dangerous on the ice.”

One Swede who fits that description is five-time All-Star center Peter Forsberg, who has 623 assists and 871 points in 11 NHL seasons. Backstrom has been compared to Forsberg, but he simply scoffs when asked whether they have similar styles.

“Absolutely not,” Backstrom said. “No.”

Backstrom said all that they have in common is their native country. The comparisons come in part because they are both left-handed quarterbacks who excel at setting up teammates.

“I don’t feel any Peter Forsberg in my body right now,” Backstrom said. “I heard it so much in Sweden. I don’t care about that. I want to be myself. I want to play my games and do the things I am good at. Peter Forsberg is one of the best players in the world. I am not like him.”

The Caps are not looking for him to be another Forsberg; they would be happy if he is part of a nucleus of a promising young team. Backstrom has the same desire.

“I think I see the ice real well. I think I am real technical, but I have some things to work on, too,” Backstrom said. “I want to show what I have, that I am from Sweden and I can play too. I want to show I can play with the Caps.”

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