Backlund hopes to provide missing offense

By Scott Mitchell

In a Calgary Flames prospect pool lacking offensive creativity and skill, Mikael Backlund stands head and shoulders above the rest.

So it’s notable when the team calls up their blue chipper in the middle of an awful scoring drought.

On a veteran-laden team going through a roster overhaul – thanks to the Dion Phaneuf trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs and shipping Olli Jokinen to the Big Apple – it is not known what is expected of Backlund.

But, according to the 6-foot 190 pound Swedish pivot, it doesn’t matter.

"You just get so happy when you get called up," he said, "so I’m just really happy to be here and I’m just trying to work hard every day so I can stay here a long time."

Moments after seeing nine minutes and 29 seconds of ice against the Carolina Hurricanes in early February, Backlund emerged from the Flames workout room dripping in sweat.

The picture was clear: Even with limited ice time, Backlund is working hard behind the scenes, soaking up the NHL atmosphere and taking full advantage of everything at his disposal.

"Me and (Dustin) Boyd didn’t play that much, but every time we’re out there we’re just trying to work as hard as we can," he said.

While the hard work mantra will definitely endear Backlund to the Sutter clan, it’s also a tough chore for a young forward to break into this lineup on Darryl and Brent’s watch.

While the organization has stated Backlund might be in Cow Town for the rest of the season, a return to the American Hockey League’s Abbotsford Heat is not out of the question once injured players have returned and the trade deadline passes. He could also go back down during the Olympic break.

In 47 AHL games, Backlund had piled up 10 goals and 12 assists, as the Heat are battling for a playoff spot. Backlund has noticed the differences – and similarities – between the team’s top affiliate and the NHL.

"The pace is a lot faster up here than in the American Hockey League, but the style of game is kind of the same," he said. "I’ve learned a lot down there in the AHL about the pro life and stuff like that. It’s been good for me to be down there for a few months."

Through seven games since being recalled Jan. 27, Backlund has played a high of 14 minutes and 55 seconds and a low of just over eight and a half minutes. In the game he saw over 14 minutes of ice, he scored his first NHL goal in Phoenix Jan. 28.

"Every shift I get I just want to go out and do my best and just bring a lot of energy and be good defensively," he said. "Just try get a lot of shots and get things going."

With a strong skating stride and soft hands, it probably isn’t hard for the Flames to envision Backlund setting up Jarome Iginla for the next few seasons.

Drafted 24th overall in 2007, Backlund has taken a unique path to where he is today. He was scheduled to spend last season with Vasteras IK of the Swedish Elite League, but that plan went awry after a slow start.

The Flames quickly moved him to the Kelowna Rockets after the World Juniors in Ottawa and Backlund adapted quickly, scoring at over a point-a-game clip with 12 goals and 18 assists in 30 games. However, in the playoffs, Backlund exploded, as he led the Rockets – along with Buffalo Sabres stud Tyler Myers – to the Memorial Cup final, scoring 13 goals in 19 games.

"It’s been quite interesting in the last year," Backlund said standing inside the Flames’ dressing room. "I’ve been a lot of places, but it’s still hockey. I’m just enjoying playing. Last year in Kelowna was awesome, playing the Memorial Cup and stuff like that.

"I experienced a lot there. It helped me a lot because I had a bad season in Sweden last year. I didn’t find my game and I was struggling a lot. I didn’t find my confidence at all. I got a fresh start here and Kelowna was perfect for me. It was good for me come over to North America and experience the smaller rinks, intensity and more physical and faster game."

Whether he finishes the season in Calgary or returns to the AHL, Backlund’s progression in the past 12 months has cemented his status as a key part of the Flames’ future.