Monday, April 13, 2009

In Alex Ovechkin, the Washington Capitals believed they had drafted the player who would be the cornerstone of their efforts to reignite the franchise. But he wasn’t enough.

Not by a long shot.

A roster purge during the 2003-04 season signaled the start of a major rebuilding project. Veterans were traded. Draft picks were accumulated. Young players were acquired. And Ovechkin was selected with the first pick of the 2004 draft.

Because of the NHL lockout the following year, the scouting staff could spend all of its energy on evaluating amateur prospects. That mindset took them to the world junior championships in Grand Forks, N.D., and Thief River Falls, Minn.

The objective: Find a distributor who could team with Ovechkin.

“We were saying, ‘We need a center to get this guy the puck,’ ” recalls Steve Richmond, the team’s director of player development.

That’s how the Caps found Nicklas Backstrom.

Then a 17-year old center in Sweden, Backstrom was that dynamic, his passes that crisp, his surveying of the ice that uncanny and his game that complete.

“Five of us were watching the game, and after one shift we said, ‘You got to be kidding me. Did he do what we think he just did?’ ” Richmond says. “His passes were on the money and in great position. He was just so good.”

In 2006, Backstrom was drafted fourth overall by the Caps. He has become just what the team envisioned: the pivot who makes everybody around him better, who is able to log minutes in a variety of situations and who can win a faceoff directly to the sharpshooting Ovechkin.

Backstrom finished fourth in the NHL with 66 assists and tied for ninth with 88 points. He will be integral if the Capitals want to win their first postseason series since 1998. They open the playoffs this week against the New York Rangers.

“This year, he knows exactly what he’s doing all the time, and he’s going to be one of the best,” Caps coach Bruce Boudreau says. “I know [Pittsburgh’s Sidney] Crosby gets all the publicity, but, boy, Nick’s a good player.”

‘He could be huge’

The gold standard for Swedish hockey is Peter Forsberg, the center who won two Stanley Cups and two gold medals.

“I can honestly tell you he’s probably more famous than our Swedish king,” Backstrom says. “Everybody knows him. He’s just huge.”

Mats Sundin, Henrik Zetterberg, Markus Naslund, Johan Franzen and the Sedin twins (Daniel and Henrik) have followed Forsberg as scorers and playmakers.

Now there’s Backstrom.

Although a different type of player than Forsberg, Backstrom is quickly becoming a celebrity in his homeland after posting 157 points in his first two NHL seasons. A Swedish reporter is spending eight weeks in the District chronicling Backstrom.

“He could be huge because he comes from a city that loves hockey,” Caps center and countryman Michael Nylander says.

Backstrom grew up in Gavle (population of about 100,000), which hugs the Baltic Sea on Sweden’s east coast, 90 minutes northeast of Stockholm.

The second of Anders and Christine Backstrom’s two sons, Nicklas was immediately drawn to hockey by following his father to senior league games. Anders was a former Rangers draft choice who played professionally in Sweden and is now a real estate manager; Christine works in social services.

“When I was 2 or 3, my parents said I would walk around the house in my skates,” Backstrom says. “I was so excited to skate, I didn’t want to take them off. There were scratches on the floor everywhere. I slept with my skates on.”

Backstrom also played soccer, floor hockey, golf and tennis until age 14, when he began concentrating on hockey. Two years later, he moved into his own apartment in Alvkarleby, 20 minutes from his parents’ house, and made his professional debut for Brynas of the Swedish Elite League. Some veterans were twice as old as Backstrom.

In 2005-06, he became a regular for Brynas, scoring 26 points in 46 games. And the Capitals had the fourth choice in the draft.

‘Maybe it’s now’

European scout Mats Weiderstal began tracking Backstrom as soon as the Caps first saw him play at the world juniors in December 2004 and January 2005.

“We had him pretty high in the draft, and his stock went up fast that year,” general manager George McPhee says. “We thought a lot of him at the world juniors, and I knew about 15 minutes before the draft that we were probably going to get him. It was pretty nice to sit there for the first part of the draft knowing the guy we wanted would be there.”

Backstrom, meanwhile, had no idea of the Caps’ interest. He didn’t attend the NHL scouting combine that spring in Toronto because he was playing for Sweden in the world championship.

“When I saw [Weiderstal] go up to the stage, I was like, ‘Maybe it’s now,’ ” Backstrom recalls.

The Caps had found the playmaker to team with Ovechkin, but they remained patient. Two days after the draft, Backstrom told McPhee he wanted to play one more year in Sweden.

“I felt like things were so fast, it would be better for me to stay home one more year and get some experience,” Backstrom says. “I had heard and seen guys come over too early, go to camp and then get sent down. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to prove that I could play in the NHL right away. I got lucky to come to this team. They gave me so many opportunities.”

Backstrom arrived in the District as a 20-year old to practice with other prospects and conduct his first media interviews. Although he took English classes in school, the scene was still intimidating.

“My English was so bad… terrible,” he says. “I knew what I wanted to say, and I understood what people were saying to me, but it was hard to find the words.”

The on-ice transition was more seamless, save for accidently putting the puck in the Caps’ goal to lose a game against Pittsburgh. He played in every game as a rookie and saw his ice time spike when Boudreau replaced Glen Hanlon.

“Bruce was like, ‘Play much; you’re good,’ ” he says. ” ‘We have a good system, and if you play the system, you’ll get a lot of ice time.’ ”

Says McPhee: “I thought [Backstrom would adjust quickly] because he’s about as smart as players come. His hockey sense is exceptional. He has a great picture of what goes on when he’s on the ice and great anticipation and tremendous poise. He’s strong enough that, when he gets the puck, he can hold people off until something opens up for him.”

‘I trust my brain’

Tracking Backstrom’s movements during a Caps power play is a task. In the home finale against Atlanta last week, he was on the ice with Ovechkin, Viktor Kozlov, Brooks Laich and Mike Green.

Backstrom wins the faceoff and is on the move.

Right half wall.

Left point.

Top of the crease.

Right corner.

Right point.

“He’s busy all the time,” Caps center Sergei Fedorov says. “He communicates with everybody well and skates all over the place.”

Wherever he sets up, Backstrom is always looking to pass. Nylander says he has never played with a center who is more patient with the puck. Boudreau says every pass is calculated.

Backstrom assisted on 21 of Ovechkin’s NHL-best 56 goals and has a special synergy with No. 8. But he has learned to shoot more this year: His goal total increased from 14 to 22.

“That’s the natural feeling for young players - to over-respect the players around them,” Carolina coach Paul Maurice says. “[Young centers] get more comfortable trusting what they see, and then they start taking their shots. When that happens, their passing becomes more dangerous because they’re passing at the right time instead of forcing it.

“Then, all of a sudden you have a helluva player.”

Caps assistant coach Dean Evason says the staff often slows down video to watch Backstrom’s feeds.

“Aerial passes, sauce passes over sticks - he has the ability of all great passers, to know when to throw a hard pass and when to throw a soft pass so you can one-time it,” Evason says. “And he puts it in the right spot so the defenders can’t get to it but the player can shoot it.”

Laich said he thinks Backstrom can develop into a 30-goal scorer, but Backstrom gets just as much pleasure from setting up Ovechkin.

“He’s a better shot than me,” Backstrom says with a laugh. “But sometimes I try to make the pass too much of the time.”

‘My dream came true’

His BMW parked outside, Backstrom doesn’t even need a menu at his favorite Italian restaurant in Arlington. The standard has been ordered again: chicken marsala, side of spaghetti and sparkling water.

In the United States for less than two years, Backstrom has become comfortable with his surroundings.

“I can say my dream came true when I got here,” he says. “When I started to get better the middle of last year, I started to just love it. It’s so much fun.”

He goes to movies with Green, Ovechkin, Laich and Alexander Semin (“like normal kids”). He can give a rundown of his favorite restaurants in Georgetown (“I’m not a big cooker”). He has visited several museums and landmarks (“You’re living in such a great city with a lot of history, I think it’s something you have to learn about”). And he can navigate the maze that is the District’s traffic grid (“That was a big issue for me - the biggest issue”).

“[Ovechkin] is the bubbly, energetic guy on the ice and off the ice; Nicky is calm and relaxed,” Laich says. “He’s come out of his shell a little bit this year. Still a little shy but a great kid.”

Despite playing nearly 40 more games a season than in Sweden, Backstrom was ready for a long playoff run last year, only to see it end with a Game 7 overtime loss to Philadelphia. A second regular season behind him, he wants to help his team to a Stanley Cup like fellow Swedes Zetterberg, Franzen and, of course, Forsberg.

“Everybody expects that we’re going to do good, but I’ve heard from guys how tough it is,” Backstrom says. “We have to play good but also have some luck, too. Play good and then have some luck and anything can happen. That’s what we’re thinking.”

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