Let’s flashback to 2006. The Washington Capitals delegation was sitting at its table on the floor of General Motors Place. George McPhee whispered a name into Alexander Ovechkin’s ear. “The guy you ran into at the World Juniors,” McPhee said. The Caps GM then fielded a trade offer from the Boston Bruins who dangled their number five and 37 overall picks to jump up to four and select “the Swede.” In the end, the Capitals passed on the deal and Ovechkin walked to the lectern on stage.
“Washington Capitals select Nicklas Backstrom,” Ovechkin, wearing the team’s black Capitol Dome jersey, said sheepishly into the mic.
Happy Draft Day babes!
— NBC Sports Capitals (@NBCSCapitals) June 21, 2019
In hindsight, that decision ultimately proved to be the right one for the franchise. Twelve years after Ovechkin drafted Backstrom, the pair combined to defeat McPhee’s Vegas Golden Knights in the 2018 Stanley Cup Final. They’re the two best players in team history. Ovechkin has 706 career goals, eighth all-time, while Backstrom has the most assists in franchise history.
But now we’re learning that things could have been very different. According to a report by The Athletic’s Josh Yohe and Rob Rossi, Backstrom was almost selected by the Pittsburgh Penguins with the second overall pick in the 2006 NHL Draft.
That year, the Penguins owned the second overall pick in the draft. In the drafts prior, they had picked Marc-Andre Fleury (#1 overall, 2003 NHL Draft), Evgeni Malkin (#2 overall, 2004 NHL Draft), and Sidney Crosby (#1 overall, 2005 NHL Draft) with the top two picks.
The Penguins named Ray Shero their new general manager on May 25, 2006. With his hiring so close to the draft, Shero decided to let the team’s head scout, Greg Malone, make the pick.
The first route the organization went was to try and trade up to pick defenseman Erik Johnson. The St. Louis Blues wouldn’t budge, so the Penguins turned their attention to the three highly-rated center prospects: Jonathan Toews, Nicklas Backstrom, and Jordan Staal.
The team had strong opinions about all three players per The Athletic:
Malone’s staff particularly loved Staal. While assistant GM with Nashville, Shero had seen Staal play in person only once. He liked him but was curious why Malone’s scouts liked Staal so much more than Toews and Backstrom.
Malone’s most trusted scout, Chuck Grillo, was down on Toews to the point that Malone never considered using the No. 2 pick on a prospect that would become a three-time Cup champion. Shero, though, loved Backstrom. And had he been in Pittsburgh for more than a cup of coffee at that point, he probably would have instructed the Penguins to take him.
The Penguins went on to take Jordan Staal with their selection.
While Staal would help the Penguins win a Stanley Cup in 2009, he arguably ended up being the worst of the three players (537 points in 961 games). Toews won three Stanley Cups with the Chicago Blackhawks and has 815 points (345g, 345a) in 943 career NHL games while Backstrom won the Cup in 2018 and has 927 points (243g, 684a) in 956 games with the Capitals. Both Toews and Backstrom seem more likely than not to end up in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
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