By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 11, 2010; 12:02 AM
When the Washington Capitals' rookie camp opens Sunday, all eyes will be on Marcus Johansson, the team's first-round draft pick in 2009, who is expected to compete for a spot on the team's opening night roster. Johansson impressed during July's development camp and garnered high praise from Coach Bruce Boudreau and General Manager George McPhee.
McPhee believes Johansson could be ready for the NHL this season, but he must demonstrate he can keep up with the Capitals' nucleus first.
"We're not going to rush anyone or put anyone in over their heads," McPhee stressed. "But with Marcus, we think he's got a real good chance of being with us if he looks like he can help us. It's all a matter of experience and how quickly he can adjust to everything here."
McPhee wouldn't rule out any option for Johansson's development should the prized prospect need more time to mature, whether that entails another year in Sweden or time in the American Hockey League with Hershey. Johansson's contract includes a clause that would let him return to Europe if he doesn't make Washington's opening night roster.
But at this point, Johansson, who will turn 20 on Oct. 6, isn't considering other alternatives.
"It's hard to say, but I think I'm ready. Now I've got to try to prove myself as soon as possible," Johansson said. "I want to be able to play my best game every night, and right now I'm just focused on getting a spot on the team. If that doesn't work we'll figure things out later."
If Johansson can make the jump from the Swedish Elite League to the NHL just more than a year after being drafted, as Nicklas Backstrom did in 2007, it is more than simply a draft pick progressing. His transition can help give the Capitals a jump-start on solidifying their long-term depth at center.
While the expectations for Johansson differ from those Backstrom shouldered upon his arrival as a rookie, it's hard to ignore parallels between the two - from their physical build to the calm confidence each has in himself.
"I'm not sure how fair it is to compare anyone to Nick Backstrom, but there are similarities in terms of their demeanors, maturity and how they carry themselves," McPhee said. "Marcus seems to have some of the same attributes that seem to be a difference maker with players' progressions."
The team enters training camp with several options for the second- and third-line center spots. Tomas Fleischmann, who may start the year at center rather than wing, and Mathieu Perreault are among those who could earn time in either role.
Johansson arrived in Washington early to rid himself of jet lag, get up to speed in practice and make sure he picked up as much as he could by working out alongside veterans such as Mike Knuble before official camp opens. In particular, he has paid close attention to everything Backstrom does on the ice, especially how he buys time for himself on an NHL rink, which is smaller than European players are accustomed to.
And Backstrom became the latest to voice his confidence in Johansson, after skating with his fellow countryman for a few days this week.
"He looks really good out there," Backstrom said. "He's a good skater; he can bring the puck up into the offensive zone well.
"The only thing he has to do, I think, is get used to the smaller rink, but he's a smart player. He'll be fine. I think he's ready."