The spot is there and it’s waiting for him. First-line centre. Multiple playing minutes with wingers Alex Tanguay and the inimitable Jarome Iginla.
All Mikael Backlund has to do is pick up where he left off last season and he’ll be the middle man on the Calgary Flames’ top forward line. It’s as big a story as there is at a Calgary training camp that features more familiar faces than new ones.
The Flames off-season building plan was to re-sign a handful of veterans and stick with a group that pulled itself up from the depths of the Western Conference to within three points of a playoff spot. The exceptions were a pair of trades – one that sent defenceman Robyn Regehr to the Buffalo Sabres and the other that shipped centre Daymond Langkow to the Phoenix Coyotes.
The Langkow deal was done for reasons of age, health, salary and because the thinking was Backlund was ready to step into a major role. When Calgary dealt Langkow for winger Lee Stempniak in late August, Backlund read about it online and realized exactly what it meant.
“We got rid of two really great guys [Langkow and Regehr]but it was good to get another sniper [Stempniak] And of course, it opens up options for me,” said Backlund, Calgary’s first-round pick in the 2007 entry draft. “My goal is I want to play and get lots of opportunities. I’d like to get more power play time.”
Backlund, 22, has been brought along slowly, spending time with the Flames’ American Hockey League affiliate in Abbotsford, B.C. With Langkow hurt for all but four games last season, Backlund played in 73 NHL games and was used on different lines. The more he played, the smoother he looked. Iginla, the Flames’ captain, took notes on what he saw from his young teammate.
“The last 10 games, you could see it. It looked like he was having a personal break through,” Iginla said. “When you have confidence, you handle the puck, you make plays and move it around guys. When you have no confidence, you chip it in. Skill players become what they weren’t when they were growing up. They go safe. [Backlund]has the skill set to be a good player.”
Backlund, who finished with 10 goals and 25 points, agreed with that assessment.
“My first goal last year was to make the team. I played safe games but when I got more and more comfortable I was able to do more stuff. I want to make plays.”
The Flames are questionable at centre ice with players either coming off injuries (Brendan Morrison) or lousy years (Matt Stajan). That leaves Olli Jokinen in the mix, although his time on the top line has proven he and Iginla are not a good fit. Both like to shoot; Iginla needs a set-up man.
Backlund has playmaking abilities and has shown them in the NHL and AHL and while playing for Sweden internationally. Iginla also likes how the strong-skating Backlund has handled the balance between weighty expectations and the reality of having to earn his chances.
“He’s had a lot of pressure on him. Everyone’s waiting. You see guys in Toronto [with the Maple Leafs] young guys who were drafted high and, and there’s pressure on them to make it and get 50, 60 points. There’s pressure on first-rounders in Canada,” Iginla said.
Now the heightened demands on Backlund are for him to elevate his game and take over the spot that’s waiting for him. How he does will have a bearing on how well the Flames perform and whether the playoffs are a go or another near miss.