LEKSAND, Sweden – You can’t help but notice that Nicklas Backstrom
is playing in the World Junior Hockey Championship.
The Swedish teenager who was Washington’s top pick, fourth overall, in the NHL Draft last June is the poster boy for the best-on-best tournament. His picture is on all the promotional posters, programs and even some souvenirs.
But that’s what happens when you are 19 and you were the leading scorer in the Swedish Elite League when you left your club team to play in the elite World Junior Championship.
“Yes there is a lot of pressure but I really don’t pay attention to that,” says Backstrom. “I just play my game.”
Backstrom’s game is puck control and finesse and there are some scouts who feel there is a little Peter Forsberg in him.
Backstrom is quick say people are going too far in mentioning him in the same breathe as Sweden’s undisputed hockey hero.
“There is only one Peter Forsberg and no one can be like him. It is a bad mistake to compare me to him,” said Backstrom.
The comparisons are made because like Forsberg, Backstrom is composed when he has the puck on his stick. And like Forsberg, Backstrom seems to slow things down while he holds on to the puck, waiting for a teammate to get into position to take a pass and create a scoring touch.
“He has terrific hockey sense,” says Washington vice president and general manager George McPhee. “He has great poise with the puck. He is the kind of player we need.”
Backstrom is from the city of Gavle, which in the world of hockey is known as the home of the Brynas club team that competes in the Swedish Elite League.
His father, Anders, was played defense for Brynas for a decade and remains involved with the team. Anders says Nicklas and his older brother, Kristoffer, played hockey morning, noon and night, all year long.
“We could not get them to stop,” says Anders. “They even played all summer, in the driveway. Nicklas would spend hours shooting pucks at Kristoffer.”
Hockey works under a vertical structure in Europe. The Brynas team, for example, would pump money into a youth hockey program where kids start playing at the age of 6. The hope is the young player would stay within the Brynas structure and would eventually make his way up to playing for the Elite League team.
That’s the route Backstrom took and his father says he’s created an excitement in the city because he’s a hometown boy who has star attraction.
“The kids in town follow his career. He’s a big hero and the kids now want to grow up to be the next Nicklas Backstrom
,” he says.
In some ways, Backstrom is what Swedish hockey needs. The generation of players who led Sweden to Olympic gold last February – Forsberg, Mats Sundin, Nik Lidstrom, Markus Naslund and Daniel Alfredsson – is in the autumn of their careers and the country needs new role models.
Backstrom could have turned pro with the Capitals last summer but he opted to stay in Sweden and hone his skills in the Elite League where Brynas uses him in all situations. Besides taking a regular shift, Backstrom is on the power play and he kills penalties and he’s on the ice late in the game when a lead has to be protected or a goal is needed.
But Backstrom wants to turn pro and he’s thought a lot about feeding the puck to Alex Ovechkin
“It would be great to play with him,” said Backstrom.
Ovechkin and Backstrom met at the NHL Draft last June when the Capitals star winger went to the podium and made the announcement that the Capitals were taking the Swedish teenager with their first round pick.
McPhee was asked about the possibility of Backstrom being Ovechkin’s linemate.
“He’d also look good with (Alexander) Semin,” said McPhee. “So much depends on chemistry. But he’s the type of player who can play with anyone.
“He makes players better. He thinks the game so well. He processes so well.”
The World Junior Hockey Championship is a must-see event for GMs like McPhee and scouts from every NHL team.
And the bloodhounds have watched Backstrom impress.
“There are very few weaknesses in his game,” said Ottawa scout Anders Hedberg. “But there are quite a few real intriguing assets, the way he plays the game. He is very gifted in creating space for himself and for others, and he has the unique ability to make other around him play better.
“And he is as reliable without the puck. He can be used in so many different positions and occasions. Players love to play with him and coaches love to coach him. He is very much team orientated. The name on the front of the sweater is much more important than the name on the back of the sweater.”
That’s music to McPhee’s ears.
“He is a special player,” said the Capitals GM.
And Capitals fans should find out next year how special he is.