When the Washington Capitals picked Swedish center Nicklas Backstrom fourth overall in the 2006 NHL entry draft, they knew that they were getting a skilled playmaker who would fit perfectly with All-Star Alexander Ovechkin.
They were hoping that Backstrom would be NHL-ready by the 2008-2009 season.
Coming into the league a year earlier than expected, Backstrom scored 69 points in his first NHL campaign (good enough for second among rookies), including 55 assists to lead all rookies, also finishing second among first-year players with a plus-13 rating.
That performance proved impressive enough to make Backstrom winner of this year's Calder Memorial Trophy, beating out fellow finalists Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, who are linemates in Chicago.
What set Backstrom apart from the Kane, Toews, and Phoenix center Peter Mueller was his attention to detail in the defensive zone.
“He’s just as solid in the offensive zone as he is in our own end,” said Washington coach Bruce Boudreau. “He knows where to be, and, for a kid his age, it's absolutely spectacular.”
Backstrom started the season on the wing under coach Glen Hanlon, but his natural position is center. It was obvious that he was struggling, because when Boudreau replaced Hanlon behind the bench at thanksgiving, Backstrom exploded for 52 of his 69 points as Boudreau allowed him to play his natural center position, flanked by Ovechkin and Brooks Laich.
“Playing with someone of Ovechkin’s caliber certainly makes life a lot easier,” Backstrom said. “All I have to do is get the puck near him, and usually it ends up in the back of the net. It's just as fun to watch him score than scoring myself.”
That's something to believe, since the breakdown of Backstrom’s points was 14 goals and 55 assists.
The young Swede won this year's award not only for his tape-to-tape passes, but his ability to stop the other team from doing the same.