- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 17, 2007

Center Nicklas Backstrom, the Washington Capitals’ first-round pick in 2006, will join the team this season — a significant step in the club’s attempts to rebuild alongside star left wing Alex Ovechkin.

The club will officially announce Monday that Backstrom will sign a standard three-year rookie contract and be at training camp in September. Rookie contracts are limited by the collective bargaining agreement.

It is believed Backstrom’s contract will be similar to the one signed by Ovechkin, the first overall pick in 2004 — a deal that could bring as much as $4 million a season if all incentives are met. Ovechkin, who made his debut in 2005, had 52 goals, 106 points and was named league rookie of the year.

The Caps drafted Backstrom fourth overall last year, but the native of Gavle, Sweden, elected to stay home and play for Brynas in the Swedish Elite League, where he had been the top rookie a season earlier at 18. The rejection hurt, setting the Caps’ plans back a season, but it gave the young player another year of top flight on-the-job training.

It also gave the Caps another opportunity to look at personnel and see what players would be needed to help maximize Ovechkin’s potential.

Club officials vowed after the season to be more aggressive in acquiring more talented players through the draft, trades and free agency to speed the rebuilding process after a massive but necessary 2002-03 salary dump.

Prying Backstrom loose from Sweden appears to be the first step.

Center was arguably the top priority that had to be filled. Dainius Zubrus was the first-line center for most of Ovechkin’s first two seasons in the NHL, but he is a natural wing and not a natural setup man — although he continued to improve once he was moved into the middle. He was traded to Buffalo in February.

“[Backstrom is] very creative, smart, really poised with the puck,” said one observer who watched him play for Sweden in the recent world championships in Moscow. “He may be better with [Alexander] Semin than with Ovechkin.”

Semin, playing his second full NHL campaign last season, had 38 goals and 73 points for the Caps, playing an unpredictable style. That style, where he hesitates occasionally for a split second before doing the unexpected, is similar to the way Backstrom plays.

Ovechkin is more of a power forward, unafraid to charge the net and anyone standing in the vicinity while getting off highly accurate, laser-like wrist shots. His style might as yet be undefined while club officials search for the proper center to bring out the best in the wing. Ovechkin had 46 goals and 92 points last season as the Caps finished 14th in the 15-team Eastern Conference.

Backstrom’s signing is only the start to restocking a roster that needs help at virtually every position. The team is desperate to shore up the defense with at least two mobile bodies who can move the puck out of the zone with one quick pass, at least one offensive-minded right wing and a first- or second-line center, a proven veteran who can play the spot Backstrom isn’t playing.

“We have lots of holes to fill,” Caps general manager George McPhee said yesterday.

At 19, Backstrom led Brynas in scoring with 12 goals and 40 points in 45 games, stats that ranked him 22nd in the top Swedish league. He also played in the world junior championships and the world championships, scoring a goal and six points in the latter. Ovechkin had a goal and three points for Russia, which won the bronze medal in the world championships.

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