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Slowly but surely, Backstrom is coming around

Friday, 01.25.2008 / 1:36 PM / 2008 NHL All-Star Game

By Adam Kimelman - Deputy Managing Editor

Named NHL Rookie of the Month for December, Nicklas Backstrom led all first-year players with 14 points. Backstrom highlights
For Nicklas Backstrom, playing in the NHL was like a dream come true. But early on, that dream has some nightmarish tendencies.

Talent normally win out, however, so the Washington Capitals rookie grasped the intricacies of NHL play. As a result, Backstrom earned a trip to Atlanta as a member of the Eastern Conference YoungStars squad that will compete Saturday at the NHL Dodge SuperSkills competition (7 p.m. ET, VERSUS, CBC, RDS, NHL Radio)

Named NHL Rookie of the Month for December, Backstrom led all first-year players in the month with 14 points (five goals, nine assists) in 13 games. He had five multi-point games during December; he had just two of them over the season’s first two months.

He’s continued his hot play into the first month of 2008, with 10 assists and 12 points in nine January games. He also became the first rookie in League history to post back-to-back four-assist games.

“He just seems to get better every week,” said Capitals General Manager George McPhee.

But the season’s first two months were not easy for Backstrom. His fortunes mirrored that of his club, with more downs than ups.

With all of the attention surrounding the North American debut of the fourth overall pick in the 2006 Entry Draft, McPhee thought it would be best to let the 20-year-old native of Gavle, Sweden, slowly grow into his role.

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“We thought it was important to allow him to assimilate the first month or so he was here, and played him on the wing along with (Michael) Nylander,” said McPhee. “We thought it was good for him and he thought it was good for him.”

It was a slow adjustment, part of which Backstrom says was getting used to the dimensions of NHL rinks.

“It was tough in the beginning, the smaller rinks,” he said.

“Can’t say we ever saw him struggle,” said McPhee. “He’s a very cerebral player and very efficient, very precise. That sort of adjustment for him may be greater than most players.”

There also were adjustments to be made off the ice. Backstrom had taken English lessons as part of the general school curriculum in Sweden, but he admits his language skills aren’t all that great.

That’s where Nylander, the 35-year-old native of Stockholm, Sweden, comes in.

Signed as a free agent this summer, Nylander has served as a father figure to Backstrom.

“Nylander has been a big help to him,” said McPhee. “He has a place to hang out and visit and eat the foods he’s had back home and speak the language. It’s probably been a real big factor in his good play here.”

“My English is not perfect, but he’s helping me with words and helping me understand,” said Backstrom. “I’m living at his house. His wife talks in Swedish and the food is good in his house. I’m not ready to move in by myself. He’s helped me a lot.”

The help on and off the ice is starting to pay off.

Since being moved to his natural center position about 15 games into the season, the change in Backstrom’s play is readily evident. Through his first 15 games, he had just seven assists and a minus-4 rating in about 14 minutes of play per game.

Since then, though, he’s taken off, with nine goals – including a pair of game-winners – and 34 points in his last 35 games. He’s a plus-5 in that span and has played at least 20 minutes in 15 of those games.

For the season, he leads the Caps with 32 assists, and is second with 41 points. He also ranks in the top four among all League rookies in assists, points and goals (nine).

“Everything is different,” said Backstrom. “Now I know where I should go and where I should be on the ice. If you know that, that’s pretty good. I think it’s going better and better. But I think it can get even better.”

McPhee also has high hopes for Backstrom. He sees the not-too-distant future, with a young core of Backstrom, Alexander Ovechkin and blossoming offensive defenseman Mike Green, leading the Caps.

“He (Backstrom) is going to be a terrific player in this league, and may already be a terrific player,” said McPhee. “He’s the kind of player we think we can win a Stanley Cup with.”

Contact Adam Kimelman at

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