Just under two years ago, the Capitals spent their first-round draft choice – the fifth pick overall – in the NHL Entry Draft on Nicklas Backstrom
, an 18-year-old center from Sweden. Alex Ovechkin
announced the pick from the podium at the draft, which was held in Vancouver that year.
Just over a year ago, the Caps held a press conference at Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Arlington to announce the signing of Backstrom to a three-year entry level contract. Backstrom came to the States last summer to participate in the Caps’ summer development camp, and then went through his first NHL training camp in preparation for his first season in the NHL and his first taste of North American hockey.
After somewhat of a slow start, Backstrom came on strong and had a terrific rookie season. He was named a finalist for the NHL’s Calder Trophy, awarded to the league’s top rookie. Backstrom finished second to Chicago’s Patrick Kane in Calder balloting, but he joined Kane and the Blackhawks’ Jonathan Toews as the three forwards on the NHL’s 2008 All-Rookie Team.
“I think it’s good,” said Backstrom before the Awards Show began. “There are three of us [Capitals here] and we’re all happy to be here. It’s exciting to be here. It’s going to be a life memory.”
Backstrom finished the season with 14 goals and he broke Alex Ovechkin
’s single-season rookie record with 55 assists. Backstrom’s 69 points are the second-most ever by a Capitals rookie, trailing only Ovechkin’s 106 in 2005-06.
As the season wore on, Backstrom paid little attention to how he was faring in the league’s rookie scoring race. He didn’t need to; Ovechkin reminded him daily of how he was faring in that respect.
“I didn’t look at the scoring,” said Backstrom. “The only guy who was doing it was Ovie and he was telling me. I’m here now and I’m glad to be nominated. It’s an honor. It’s good to be here.”
As usual, Backstrom was gracious when queried as to his chances of winning.
“I think they’re good guys, too,” he said, referring to co-finalists Kane and Jonathan Toews of the Blackhawks. “They did pretty good for Chicago and they’re good hockey players. For me, it doesn’t matter who wins.”
A teenager at the season’s outset, Backstrom scored a game-winning overtime goal against the Flyers on his 20th birthday and improved almost daily from that point on. Despite playing nearly 100 games – almost twice the amount he was used to playing in his native Sweden – Backstrom was stellar and fresh at season’s end. He was one of Washington’s top players in its stretch drive to the playoffs and he tied for the team lead with four playoff goals.
Most observers figured Backstrom would be a very good NHL player, but most did not expect him to be so good so fast.
“Yeah, a little bit,” Backstrom admitted when asked if he surprised himself. “It’s gone fast, the last couple of years. It’s gone fast, the last year in the NHL. I’m a little surprised myself, but I know I can play hockey.
“I’m learning every day from good players like Ovie, [Sergei] Fedorov, [Michael] Nylander. It’s good to have that support all the time and I think we have a real good team.”
Day by day through Backstrom’s first season in the league, you could see him improving. Already blessed with wonderful hockey sense and great playmaking skill, he began to be more of an offensive force as the season wore on. He also improved in the face-off circle and in his work along the walls and in the corners.
“I was a little bit nervous when I went to go [to North America],” says Backstrom. “You never know what’s happening over there. You’re not sure if you’re going to take your place on the team. That’s tough. I felt more comfortable as time went on. Even though it was a slow start it was good for me to learn what was going on over here.”
As he prepares for his sophomore season with the Caps in 2008-09, Backstrom has areas in which he hopes to improve, but he doesn’t plan to alter his off-season training regimen.
“I have stuff to work on,” he declares. “I have to be faster. I want to be more explosive. It’s always small things you have to be better at. I think I’m going to do the same stuff. It’s good for me and it’s good for my legs.”
It’s good for the Caps, too. The way Backstrom played over the final three-quarters of the 2007-08 season and in the playoffs, the Capitals and their fans can’t wait to see what’s next as Backstrom’s career unfolds in the District.