It’s been almost a year since the Washington Capitals made Nicklas Backstrom the fourth overall choice in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. Because the teenaged Swedish center elected to play the 2006-07 season in his native country, few Caps fans have had a chance to see him play.
Until Sunday night’s game here against Finland, we hadn’t seen him either. Now that we have, we’ll try to give you an idea of what we saw. We spent the game charting Backstrom’s shifts and on-ice activity. By our very unofficial tabulations, he skated 15 shifts totaling 11:09, won seven of 13 face-offs and had one shot on goal. Here are a few of the highlights.
First Period The shot on goal came on Backstrom’s first shift of the game, a 57-second twirl early in the first. He started by winning a defensive zone draw, and ended the shift when his slap shot from the blueline was gloved down by Team Finland goaltender Kari Lehtonen.
Midway through the period, Backstrom made a good defensive play in the offensive zone to strip a Finnish player who was trying to start the breakout. Team Sweden was shorthanded on his following shift, and Backstrom gave Finland’s Tuomo Ruutu a nice shove after the whistle. Backstrom was also observed jawing with a Finnish player during another first period shift.
His best shift of the period was likely his last. Backstrom curled to elude a defender at the Finland blueline. He gained the zone, held the puck patiently, drew a defender and then dished a pass back to the blueline. The defenseman one-timed it towards the net, and it resulted in a rebound and a scoring chance.
Backstrom finished the first with six shifts totaling 4:54.
Second Period On his first shift of the second period, Backstrom led a breakout rush into the neutral zone, passing off to a winger near the red line. The rush ultimately resulted in a scoring chance, but Lehtonen brushed the shot aside with an arm save. Backstrom spent two minutes in the middle of the period serving a delay of game sentence incurred by Swedish goaltender Johan Backlund.
Late in the frame, Backstrom came on to take a key offensive zone draw while the Swedes enjoyed a 20-second two-man advantage. He won the face-off back to the point, then went to position himself down low to Lehtonen’s right while one of his wingers manned the spot at the top of the crease in front of the Finnish goaltender.
Backstrom totaled five shifts and 3:37 in ice time in the second.
Third Period In his first shift of the third, Backstrom won an offensive zone draw back to the point. Lehtonen made the save on the resulting shot on goal. His next shift included 41 seconds of penalty killing time and a neutral zone face-off loss.
Backstrom’s final shift of the night started at 13:01 of the third when he won a draw in the defensive zone. The Swedes moved the puck up ice and drew a penalty in the attack zone, but Backstrom did not remain on the ice for the man advantage.
With Sweden protecting a slim 1-0 lead, Backstrom did not play over the final 6:25 of the game. He finished the third period with four shifts totaling 2:38.
It’s one game, and the kid is 19 years old. It’s a tiny, tiny snapshot of what will likely be a career of many hundreds and hundreds of games. We’ll not pass judgment on Backstrom or any other player on the basis of this or any other game, but since there is a sense of heightened anticipation among Capitals fans anxious to see Backstrom play, we thought it might be useful to pass along our view of his night on the ice.
It’s easy to see the kind of player he can be. He is poised, talented, creative and clever. We also had a chance to talk to Team Sweden captain Kenny Jonsson and coach Bengt Gustafsson and get their assessments of Backstrom. We’ll share those later in the week.