One of the worst kept “secrets” in Moscow last week was the fact that the Capitals and Nicklas Backstrom had come to terms on a contract and that Backstrom would soon be on his way to the District for a press conference. The Capitals today admitted as much when they announced Backstrom will be in Washington on Monday to meet the press and sign his new entry level pact.
The 19-year-old Swedish center was Washington’s first choice (fourth overall) in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. Backstrom spent the 2006-07 season playing for Brynas in the Swedish Elite League. He finished with a dozen goals and a team-leading 40 points in 45 games in that league in 2006-07, an uptick from the 10 goals and 26 points he racked up in 46 games for the same club in 2005-06.
“It started pretty good I think,” says Backstrom, “but the longer the season has gone on I had a tough time at the finish of the season. I have to work hard every day and I have to keep up my game.”
Washington quite obviously has need for a couple of scoring line centers, and Backstrom should be able to fill one of those slots. At the recently completed World Championship tournament in Moscow, Backstrom totaled a goal and six points in nine games. Team Sweden coach Bengt Gustafsson (a former Capital) almost always deployed Backstrom’s line on the first shift after a goal at the tournament. That’s generally a strong sign that a coach has confidence in a player’s ability.
Our team of media watched Backstrom play four games at the tournament, and he showed degrees of improvement in each. From our vantage point, there was a lot to like.
Backstrom makes good decisions with the puck in all three zones. He is patient and poised with the disc, and doesn’t panic under pressure. He is creative enough on his feet to elude checkers and would-be pickpockets, and he also has the vision needed to make good plays and get pucks to the open man.
He was responsible defensively from what we saw, usually floating up high in the offensive zone ready to make the transition to defense/backchecking if the opposition were to break the puck out. Backstrom also showed some fire in the belly, something he doesn’t always show according to the Swedish media. We saw him engage in post-whistle scrums on more than one occasion, sometimes as the initiator of said scrum.
That said, even Backstrom admits he could stand to be more physical.
“Be faster on my skates and play more physical,” he replies when asked what aspects of his game he needs to improve in order to play in the NHL. “Those are the things I am thinking of now, but I think it’s going to be better. It’s another level there and I have to prepare my best.”
Gustafsson made the leap from the Swedish League to the NHL a quarter-century ago, so he has a pretty good idea of what it takes to succeed at both levels.
“I don’t think he will have any big problem with the [smaller] ice surface [in North America], that’s no problem,” says Gustafsson. “But he has to get a little more intense and be a little more explosive in his game. He has all the [tools] but sometimes he just keeps going at the same speed. He has to be able to change his speed a little more.
“You do a thing and it works for you and you like to stick to it and keep doing the same thing. But when you get to the next level, you have to be able to change and adjust to that situation. I know he can do it. That’s what the biggest difference for him is going to be.”
According to the Swedish media, Backstrom can play at a higher level than he showed in the Worlds in Moscow. According to a European scout employed by an NHL team, Backstrom is the best player to come out of Sweden.
Forsberg was the sixth player chosen overall in the 1991 NHL Entry Draft. By the time he made his NHL debut with the Quebec Nordiques in 1994-95, Forsberg had already celebrated his 21st birthday. He totaled 15 goals and 50 points in 47 games as a freshman in that lockout-shortened NHL season.
Backstrom won’t turn 20 until Nov., so he will be a teenager when he makes his NHL debut. The 2007-08 schedule will be released in mid-July, and that’s when Capitals fans will know when they’ll get their first glimpse at Backstrom in a Washington sweater.