Alex Ovechkin was drafted two years ago, but yesterday at General Motors Place in Vancouver, B.C., the Washington Capitals' star found himself standing at center stage once again.
This time he was doing the picking.
In a somewhat surprising gesture, Ovechkin stepped to the lectern and announced the Capitals' No. 4 choice in the NHL entry draft, Sweden's Nicklas Backstrom, a playmaking center who is expected to share the ice with the reigning rookie of the year, perhaps next season.
"That was unbelievable," Backstrom said of hearing his name called by Ovechkin. "He's a great player. I love this guy. It was amazing. He has good speed and is a goal scorer. Maybe we can do it together. I can be a playmaker to him."
"He said to me, 'Welcome.' "
Backstrom was the top-ranked European player available and has drawn comparisons to Philadelphia Flyers star Peter Forsberg, although he later said in a conference call that he patterns his game after Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg. In other words, the 18-year-old Backstrom, who is listed at 6 feet, 184 pounds, is projected to be precisely what the Capitals so desperately need.
"We believe he's a number one playmaking center," Capitals General Manager George McPhee said. "And we believe he's ready now. We'd like to have him here next year, but it's going to be up to him whether he wants to stay in Sweden another year. He's undecided, but says he would be open to it."
Backstrom, the rookie of the year in the Swedish Elite League after amassing 10 goals and 16 assists in 46 games for Brynas, said: "Maybe I can play [in the NHL next season], but it's a decision to make a few weeks after the draft."
Washington filled another need with its other first-round pick, the 23rd overall, taking Russian goaltender Semen Varlamov. Again, Ovechkin announced the pick, which the Capitals acquired from Nashville. Varlamov was not in attendance.
Luke Lynes, one of the Capitals' fourth-round picks (122nd overall), is from Ellicott City. The forward played for Brampton of the Ontario Hockey League last season.
As expected, St. Louis used the No. 1 overall pick to select 6-4, 222-pound American defenseman Erik Johnson, considered the top talent in this year's draft. Pittsburgh took center Jordan Staal, the younger brother of Carolina Hurricanes star Eric Staal, with the second pick. Chicago used the third selection to choose University of North Dakota forward Jonathan Toews. And Phil Kessel, the University of Minnesota center who one year ago was considered the best player available, dropped to Boston at the fifth spot. A record 10 American-born players were drafted in the first round, two more than the previous record set last year.
Draft Day 2006 might be remembered as "Wheel-and-Deal Day," as several teams pulled off trades both large and small, including:
· Atlanta dealing 1999 No. 1 overall pick Patrik Stefan, a center, and defenseman Jaroslav Modry to Dallas for center Niko Kapanen and a seventh-round pick;
· Colorado sending winger Alex Tanguay to Calgary for defenseman Jordan Leopold, a second-round draft pick and a conditional second-round selection in 2007 or 2008;
· Los Angeles trading star center Pavol Demitra to Minnesota for prospect Patrick O'Sullivan and the 17th pick yesterday;
· Boston shipping goaltender Andrew Raycroft, the rookie of the year in 2004, to Toronto for the rights to goaltending prospect Tuukka Rask.
The weekend's blockbuster was completed late Friday evening, when Vancouver sent troubled winger Todd Bertuzzi to Florida in exchange for goaltender Roberto Luongo as the centerpieces of a five-player deal. The Canucks also sent goalie Alex Auld and defenseman Bryan Allen to the Panthers for defenseman Lukas Krajicek and a sixth-round pick in yesterday's draft.
As for the Capitals, they owned 11 picks total, and five in the first two rounds.
With their three picks in the second round, they selected goaltender Michal Neuvirth of the Czech Republic 34th, right wing Francois Bouchard of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League 35th and defenseman Keith Seabrook of British Columbia Hockey League 52nd.
"This draft was strong at the center ice position and at the goaltending position," McPhee said. "Goal was a position we needed to address. Olie's going to play for a long time but it won't be forever. So we need to start developing a couple of players who could challenge for that position."