By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 27, 2009
MONTREAL, June 26 -- For the third time in four seasons, the Washington Capitals selected a center from Sweden in the first round of the draft, bolstering a position General Manager George McPhee considers essential to his team's future success.
On Friday night, McPhee used the No. 24 overall pick to chose Marcus Johansson, a two-way player scouts describe as skilled but not flashy.
"Center ice is a hard position to fill in this league -- a creative, puck moving, center-ice man," McPhee said. "If you look at the teams that win Cups, Pittsburgh most recently with [Evgeni] Malkin and [Sidney] Crosby or before that Detroit with [Henrik] Zetterberg and [Pavel] Datsyuk, they have that."
Johansson, 18, joins an organization that already boasts Nicklas Backstrom, the fourth overall pick in 2006, and Anton Gustafsson, the 21st pick in last year's draft.
"If it ever works out where we have Backstrom and Gustafsson and this kid playing down the middle, that would be pretty darn good," McPhee added.
Johansson notched five goals and five assists in 45 games for Swedish Elite League champion Farjestad while receiving limited ice time as an 18-year-old. He also notched two goals in six games in the world junior championships in Ottawa, which is where Johansson's stock skyrocketed in the eyes of McPhee and his scouting staff.
"I loved the way he played against Canada in the world junior final," McPhee said. "In the final, in a real hostile environment, 20,000 Canadian fans going crazy, some of the Swedish kids didn't show up. He showed up and played hard."
Johansson said he is a longtime admirer of Zetterberg and recently has become a fan of Backstrom's.
"I have watched Nicklas on television when I can watch him," Johansson said of Backstrom, who racked up 22 goals and 66 assists in his second season with Washington last year. "He's a great player in every part of the game. I try to pattern parts of my game after him."
Johansson also said he has two years remaining on his contract with Farjestad and plans to play at least one more season in his homeland. But he would be open to coming to North America the following year.
Johansson, 5 feet 11 and 189 pounds, has also suffered at least two concussions. But McPhee said he is not concerned about his history of head injuries.
"When you play hard and you play physical, you get your bell rung once in a while," McPhee said.
Much of the buildup this week had revolved around the player the New York Islanders would select with the first overall selection. The club had not publicly committed to any of the top prospects. In the end, though, General Manager Garth Snow went with a high-scoring center who's been pegged as a No. 1 pick for years: John Tavares of the Ontario Hockey League's London Knights.
"I had no idea," said Tavares, who amassed 58 goals and 104 points in 56 games. "I was just like everyone else, wondering what the decision would be. You can understand Garth and the approach of the organization because it's a big decision for them."
After Tavares, 18, pulled the Islanders jersey over his head and mugged for the cameras, the next two picks went according to script. The Tampa Bay Lightning picked bruising defenseman Victor Hedman and Colorado chose playmaking center Matt Duchesne of the OHL's Brampton Battalion.
The first three picks, however, were overshadowed by the announcement of a blockbuster trade that figures to alter the balance of power in the Eastern Conference. The Philadelphia Flyers got bigger and badder, adding punishing defenseman Chris Pronger in a trade with the Anaheim Ducks.
Anaheim sent Pronger and prospect Ryan Dingle to the Flyers for Luca Sbisa, Joffrey Lupul, their first-round pick in this year's draft, their first-round pick next year and a conditional third-round pick in 2010 or 2011.
McPhee said the Capitals were briefly involved in the talks for Pronger. But for the second time in a year, Anaheim's asking price was too high. McPhee said the Ducks wanted one of the Capitals' two goaltending prospects -- Simeon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth -- top-rated prospect John Carlson and "something else."
"I said this is not the direction we need to go in," said McPhee, who had expressed interest in Pronger at last season's trade deadline before backing away.
The draft will resume Saturday morning with the Capitals holding six more picks -- Nos. 24, 55, 85, 115, 144, 174 and 204.
Draft Notes: The NHL and NHL Players' Association announced that next year's salary cap ceiling has been set at $56.8 million, a $100,000 increase from last year's upper limit. The floor will be $40.8 million and the midrange limit will be $48.8 million. . . .
When the Phoenix Coyotes were on the clock, the mostly Canadian crowd began chanting, "Hamilton, Hamilton" -- as in Hamilton, Ontario, a possible destination for the troubled franchise. . . .
The Capitals' media relations staff has won the Dick Dillman Award for the third consecutive year. The honor -- each conference has a winner -- goes to best media relation staff as voted by the Professional Hockey Writers' Association.