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Johansson could be Caps' latest Swedish sensation

Friday, 09.17.2010 / 3:32 PM / 2010-2011 Season Preview

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer

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Johansson could be Caps' latest Swedish sensation
A few years after Nicklas Backstrom burst on the scene in Washington, the Capitals have another young Swede bidding to make the roster at age 19 in Marcus Johansson.
ARLINGTON, Va. -- Quick, name the last 19-year-old Swedish center and former first-round draft pick who skipped over major junior hockey and the minor leagues to make it to the NHL?

Waiting, waiting...

Here's a hint: He wears No. 19 for an Eastern Conference team that rocks the red. And another hint: He finished fourth in Art Ross Trophy race last season with 101 points.

Now you got it. It's Washington's own Nicklas Backstrom, who didn't turn 20 until the night of his 22nd career NHL game.

Why bring this up, you ask? Well, the Capitals appear to have another 19-year-old Swedish center and former first-round draft pick that may just be ready to skip over major junior hockey and the minor leagues and make it to the NHL.

His name is Marcus Johansson, and Capitals' fans are already familiar with him after his strong showing at this summer's development camp and even better performance this week during the team's rookie camp.

Coach Bruce Boudreau called Johansson the Caps' most consistent player in Thursday's rookie game versus Philadelphia, stressing his effortless skating and strength on the puck and in the faceoff circle. Alex Ovechkin told NHL.com that Johansson is the real deal. Backstrom is very much in his corner, too, saying he thinks Johansson is ready now.

Even without one official practice with the veterans (his first will be Saturday), Johansson is looking more and more like a lock to make the team because the Capitals have a need at center that the youngster might be able to fill.

"We watched (Johansson) at the World Championships last year and I said, 'Geez, this kid might be ready to play for us,' " Capitals GM George McPhee told NHL.com. "I'm not sure where in the lineup, but you'd like to have that kind of player. We've got a pretty good team that we can surround this kid with and there is not a lot of pressure on him, but to bring that kind of speed and hockey sense to the rink every night would be good for our team."

The Capitals have Tomas Fleischmann penciled in as their No. 2 center, but McPhee acknowledged that Johansson could wind up winning the job eventually this season. It doesn't appear to be imminent because, as coach Bruce Boudreau explained, Fleischmann successfully played between Alexander Semin and Brooks Laich for a 20-game stretch last season and tossing a rookie in between two veterans might not be in the best interest for the team or the player.

"We're not going to put somebody in over their head. We don't have to do that," McPhee said. "But there are certain players -- (Alex) Ovechkin, Backstrom, (John) Carlson, (Semyon) Varlamov -- they're mature enough players that you think you can put them in there at 20 years of age and they'll do the job. They have.

"We're going to play him wherever he needs to play."

Johansson is going to draw instant comparisons to Backstrom because of their backgrounds. But he's not expected to play like Backstrom or even be in his class of talent, maybe ever.

Backstrom was the No. 4 pick in the 2006 Entry Draft while Johansson was selected at No. 24 three years later. Backstrom is thicker and stronger than Johansson. If his work paid off this summer, Backstrom will be faster, too. He also has an untrainable chemistry with Ovechkin, which may be the single most important intangible he brings to the Capitals.

"Some people have compared him to Nicky Backstrom, but I don't think that's a fair comparison," McPhee said. "Nicky Backstrom is one of the top two or three centers in this League, but (Johansson) has the same maturity, the same demeanor, disposition. He's very mature, very level-headed, terrific parents. We think he's mature enough to handle this, and for those reasons we want to try it."

Johansson, who will turn 20 on Oct. 6, two days before Washington opens the season in Atlanta, is staying humble and would like to remain unassuming even though his story could be one of the most interesting to follow in Capitals' camp.

No other rookie appears NHL ready.

"Yeah, absolutely, it's a great challenge and absolutely a big step in my career, but you want to go as far as you can and I want to be able to play in the best League in the world," Johansson said. "So that's why I'm trying to get a spot in Washington, to play for one of the best teams in the world, too."

There are alternatives for Johansson. He could return to Europe or spend time learning the North American game in the American Hockey League with the Hershey Bears. Johansson isn't even considering those options right now.

"You'd like to have that kind of player. We've got a pretty good team that we can surround this kid with and there is not a lot of pressure on him, but to bring that kind of speed and hockey sense to the rink every night would be good for our team."
-- Capitals GM George McPhee on Marcus Johansson

"That's why I signed," Johansson said when asked if he feels he can win a spot in camp. "I wanted to come over and here and play for the Capitals as soon as possible. That's what I plan on doing."

Johansson has impressed, but no one in Washington's camp is kidding themselves -- the kid has a lot to learn.

For one, Johansson has to figure out how to best use his skills on the smaller North American ice sheet. In 2009 he played six games at Scotiabank Place in Ottawa while representing Sweden in the World Junior Championships, but outside of that the rookie game Thursday remains the only other time he's played a real game in North America.

Johansson said at times he felt squeezed on the ice Thursday.

"It feels like it's going faster out there and you don't have that much time to think about what you're going to do," he said. "It's a different type of game, and it's not easy to know everything. I need every day I can get."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl

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