When the Washington Capitals boarded a charter flight to Ottawa for their second preseason game of 2007, 19-year-old Nicklas Backstrom took a seat next to fellow teenager and rookie goaltender Michal Neuvirth.
Some hours later, the Caps boarded the same plane to head back to Washington after a 5-3 loss to the Senators. For the return trip to the District, veteran center Michael Nylander politely displaced Neuvirth as Backstrom’s seatmate. Nylander got a hold of a laptop and a DVD copy of the just-completed game between the Caps and Sens, and he spent the return flight giving the rewind and fast-forward buttons a workout.
“We were watching the game,” begins Backstrom, when asked about the video tutorial, “how we play, how we see each other, how we pass the puck to each other and how close we are to each other. It’s good to see. It’s the first time we played with each other, so it was good to see on DVD.”
Professor Nylander backed up that assessment.
“We’re just seeing how we’re playing,” he says, “and if we should be somewhere else both offensively and defensively, [like] if you should have forechecked on some pucks that you didn’t. We just try to see the game. We haven’t been playing games in so long, and you have to get your mind back into the game. Everything should be just automatic. It’s good to go through the things on the tape and see if you should shoot there or pass there, go to the net and stuff like that. Just basics.”
Nylander’s teaching is not limited to the aisle seat on the team’s charter. After the conclusion of the formal portion of a recent rigorous practice at Kettler, most of the Capitals took to informally shooting pucks around and generally taking on a playful turn before going off to the locker room. Not Nylander, though. He, Backstrom and Viktor Kozlov convened at the far end of the ice. Nylander put two pucks on the surface just a few feet apart. The three players then took turns skating tight (like, really tight), sharp and fast figure eights around the two discs. They weren’t playing; they were working.
“You have to get in shape and be as quick as you can,” he says. “What you do good out there, you have to do really good at it and try to maintain it at that high level. I’m trying to get to that level right now, and then maintain it throughout the year.”
One of Nylander’s other tricks of the trade involves taping a dozen pucks to the blade of one of his sticks. He uses this stick to help strengthen his forearm muscles, and to make his game stick feel lighter in comparison, much in the way a baseball hitter uses a weighted bat.
Watching Nylander darting about in the attack zone, curling off in sharp tight circles to elude defenders and protect the puck, you wonder how hard it would be to play on a line with him. Backstrom is picking up the art of playing with the slick Swedish center.
“I try to be close with him on the ice, so he can pass to me and I can pass back,” says Backstrom. “After a couple [practices] and games, I think I can read what he is going to do. We can know each other, that’s not a big problem. I think that is going to be good.”
As a rookie playing a strange position (left wing) in a strange country and on a smaller ice surface than he is used to, Backstrom is growing accustomed to his new environment both on and off the ice.
“I feel better and better,” he says. “I haven’t played on these small rinks. Every game I feel more comfortable. I hope it is going to get much better.”
Nylander made the adjustment from the larger European rinks to the smaller NHL ice surfaces some 15 years ago when he broke into the league with the Hartford Whalers.
“It was a while ago,” he remembers, “but it’s always an adjustment. In the end, it’s just the same. After a while, I think he’s going to like playing on the smaller rinks.”
Kozlov concurs with Nylander’s opinion of the smaller rinks.
“If you’re here [in North America] and you beat the guy one-on-one in the offensive zone you have a very good chance to score,” Kozlov observes. “In Europe if you beat the guy one-on-one you’ve got a long way to go to the net, and he can [recover and] get the puck.”
Nylander and Backstrom have played together almost exclusively since the start of training camp. With two natural centers on the same line, there is the potential for a lot of creativity.
“It gives you a little more freedom to go,” says Nylander, when asked about having another center on his line. “We back each other up. Maybe I’m going for a forecheck and he knows where to go, to be the third guy high. It’s stuff like that that helps. We just have to learn to play with each other and take the puck to the net more.”
So what was it that Nylander was showing Backstrom on the laptop that night on the plane?
“The biggest problem we had was shooting the puck,” he claims. “We have to shoot the puck more on the net. That’s the thing we have to work on. We made chances, but we didn’t hit the net I think. We have to shoot more on the net. And we will. It’s going to be good.”
It’s getting there already. The first Washington goal this season came off Nylander’s stick, with an assist to Backstrom. And the team’s first goal in a 7-3 loss at Buffalo on Oct. 13 came on a nifty give-and-go with Backstrom feeding Nylander for the tally.
The Caps knew they’d signed a pretty good center when they inked Nylander to a four-year deal last July 2. Turns out he’s a pretty good mentor for their budding hockey prodigy, too.