Team's Top Pick Leads Swedish League in Scoring

By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Although Nicklas Backstrom is at least a year away from wearing a Capitals uniform, hockey fans in Washington should be heartened that the club's first-round pick in June's NHL entry draft is dominating Sweden's top professional league.

In 14 games, Backstrom, a playmaking center, has eight goals and 20 points, which leads the Swedish Elite League. He also ranks eighth in faceoff efficiency, winning 57 percent for third-place Brynas.

And he's only 18 years old.

"What's impressive is, at his age, he's not only leading the league in scoring, he's also a top faceoff guy in the league," Capitals General Manager George McPhee said yesterday at Ashburn Ice House. "That's a unique combination at that age."

Often compared to fellow Swede Peter Forsberg by the Swedish media, Backstrom is viewed within the Capitals organization as a long-term linemate of star left wing Alex Ovechkin.

McPhee chose Backstrom with the hope he would play in the NHL this winter, but after consulting with his parents and McPhee, last year's rookie of the year in Sweden decided to play another season in his homeland. Backstrom's decision left the Capitals short at center this season, and hesitant to make a long-term commitment to a free agent.

McPhee said he expects to sign Backstrom soon after the negotiating period begins in March.

"It will be good for him to play another year in Sweden," said McPhee, who plans to watch Backstrom play in person at least twice in the coming months. "He'll be a more experienced player, a stronger player and he'll be in the right frame of mind when he gets here."

Klepis Promoted

Coach Glen Hanlon promoted smooth-skating prospect Jakub Klepis yesterday to the second line, where he'll skate between wingers Alexander Semin and Richard Zednik.

Klepis, who is scoreless in six games, was moved there on an experimental basis in the third period of Saturday's 6-4 loss to Tampa Bay, and played well enough to warrant a longer look. Hanlon has said he likes the chemistry between Klepis and Zednik.

"I just played a hunch that Jake would bring his speed and do something, and he made a couple of real nice plays," Hanlon said.

Klepis's promotion means Kris Beech will move down and center a line with Donald Brashear and Matt Pettinger, who will switch from left wing to the right side. Hanlon also likes the chemistry between Beech and Pettinger.

"This is a really big chance for me," Klepis said. Zednik "is European like I am, and same with Semin. So maybe there is more chemistry than when I'm playing with the guys from the U.S. or Canada."

Power Play Improves

The power play jumped to 14th from 23rd after striking twice on three opportunities against the Lightning.

The unit's success was prompted by Hanlon's decision to stack his lineup with his best offensive players. Ovechkin, Dainius Zubrus and Zednik will continue to skate up front, and Semin and Brian Pothier will man the points.

Putting them together, however, has a side effect for the talent-thin club: It leaves Hanlon with relatively few options for his number two power-play unit.

"If this power play is going to be where we expect it to be, there's a burden, there's pressure on them to get it done," Hanlon said. "So you'll likely see them on the ice a lot longer, too. We need to get our goals from that group." . . .

Hanlon had his players work on penalty shots for about 10 minutes yesterday. The Capitals have lost two times in the shootout and have yet to score.

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