Backstrom Signs, Impresses Caps

Nicklas Backstrom
"I'm a better player now," Nicklas Backstrom says, referring to his decision to spend another season playing in his native Sweden. "I have grown as a person, too." (Manuel Balce Ceneta - AP)
By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Nearly a year after being selected with the fourth overall pick, center Nicklas Backstrom officially became a member of the Washington Capitals yesterday when he signed a bonus-laden three-year contract that could pay him as much as $2.2 million as a rookie.

"I'm a better player now," Backstrom said, referring to his decision to spend another season playing in his native Sweden. "I have grown as a person, too."

Backstrom, 19, is expected to make an immediate impact in Washington, where he'll play alongside either Alex Ovechkin or Alexander Semin. Asked to which of the high-scoring Russian wingers he would prefer sending passes, Backstrom sidestepped the question like a veteran, saying, "They are both great players."

Coach Glen Hanlon was equally elusive when asked where he envisions Backstrom playing next season.

"It's too premature," he said. "It's not about him. It's also, 'Who else is going to be here?' If there's someone who comes in who is familiar with Ovechkin or Semin, that could affect things. But Nicklas, obviously, is going to play with one of them."

Backstrom's entry-level contract will pay him a base salary of $850,000 (which includes an $85,000 signing bonus) and as much as $1.35 million more in bonuses in the first year. He can earn a total $2.5 million in the second and third year of the contract -- if he achieves all of the bonuses.

Fans are expected to get their first glimpse of Backstrom during July's development camp at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, according to team officials. He'll wear jersey No. 19.

Since arriving in Washington on Saturday, Backstrom, the son of a former professional hockey player, has attended a Mystics game, toured downtown Washington, visited the White House and thrown out the ceremonial first pitch at the Nationals-Orioles game at RFK Stadium.

"It was a split-finger slider and was a very, very fine pitch," majority owner Ted Leonsis said, before turning serious. "He is another part of the foundation of the new core of the Washington Capitals."

That's a strong statement considering Backstrom has never taken a shift in the NHL. But those who have seen him play, such as Capitals defenseman Brian Pothier, say he's the type of player who is capable of dominating a game. Pothier lined up opposite Backstrom when the United States played Sweden two months ago during an exhibition ahead of the world championship.

"He stood out right away," Pothier said. "You hate to compare guys, but he reminded me of Peter Forsberg."

Pothier specifically recalled Backstrom standing up for himself when things got rough. The teenager threw a punch at an American player after getting hit with a high elbow.

But throwing punches won't be how the newest Capital, who is listed at 6 feet 183 pounds, will make his living. He'll do that by racking up points and making his presence felt in the defensive end.

"He's a very creative offensive player and he's very responsible defensively," General Manager George McPhee said. "You don't get that often with a young player. His parents have taught him well and his coaches have taught him well."

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