Backlund’s natural hat-trick in scrimmage buoys expectations for season
Fans cheer as Flames hope they may have found one top-six centre
Not one chapeau fluttered to the Saddledome ice Wednesday in honour of Mikael Backlund popping his third goal of a routine scrimmage on goalie Miikka Kiprusoff at Calgary Flames training camp.
The crowd of roughly 400 — no word of how many in attendance actually called in sick to work with fake coughs and sniffles — offered a polite round of applause for the 23-year-old as they munched on complimentary hotdogs and popcorn.
“I didn’t expect it,” said the third-year centreman, laughing off the mere mention of the traditional ceremony to mark a hat-trick.
In this case, applause will do.
In fact, Backlund will soak up any kind of positive reinforcement, no matter the source, after a 2011/12 season that can only be described as disappointing bordering on brutal — from both a personal and team perspective.
“Coming from last year where I struggled to score a lot, it’s always good to score,” said Backlund, a Flames cap perched backwards on his head with flowing locks poking out the back. “I’m just going to try and carry this with me. Still, it’s just a scrimmage, but it always feels good to score.
“It’s good for my confidence and all that. It gives me a little boost.”
In terms of confidence, Backlund needed a massive boost last summer upon boarding a plane back to his native Sweden for a period of reflection and reconstruction of a hockey career in peril.
Perhaps more than most, the first-round pick (24th overall) of the Flames in 2007 admits that self-belief (or lack thereof) tends to be his nemesis.
“I’ve been working on confidence my whole career,” he said. “But especially this season. Coming into this season, I just want to have fun, have a lot of energy on the ice and play with a lot of passion.”
“I had a tough start last year, and I had no energy out there.”
A tough start is one way to describe the beginning of last season for Backlund which saw him break a finger via a friendly-fire slash in practice.
When the damaged digit healed, Backlund struggled mightily and landed the proverbial doghouse of former head coach Brent Sutter.
Trying to play physical, trying to make an impression, Backlund separated his shoulder in mid-February, thus ending a season to forget.
“I was just struggling and struggling,” he said. “I couldn’t find positive energy. I couldn’t find the fun part.
“Because if it doesn’t go well, it’s hard to have fun.”
Enter Bob Hartley, the new head coach pledging to give each and every Flame a fresh sheet of ice on which to prove himself.
So far, so good. Backlund has four goals this week in training camp scrimmages designed for purposes of education and evaluation.
Hard to believe the young man pencilled in to start last season as the centre on the first line managed just four goals through the entire 2011/12 campaign.
“I don’t know Mikael Backlund,” Hartley said Wednesday. “We watched some game tapes during the work stoppage. I had a few good meetings with him prior to the work stoppage. I had a few more since we started.
“He’s eager to go. He knows this is a big season for him. We’re supporting him, and he has the talent to do it. So I think we’ll give him some clear roles, and I’m sure he’ll have a big season for us.”
Make no mistake: this is a make-it-or-break-it season for Backlund. Management knows it. He knows it.
His teammates know it.
“It’s nice for Backs to see the puck go in the net,” said forward Michael Cammalleri. “Because scrimmage, no scrimmage, practice — it doesn’t matter if you’re out there by yourself shooting on an empty net, it’s always nice to see it go in.”
Especially for a guy who had started to question his ability to put the puck in the net.
But after a strong start to this season for his hometown club of Vasteras in the Swedish Elite League — combined with a gruelling summer training with Swedish conditioning guru Mats Emanuelson (famous for working with the Sedin twins), and steady work with a Calgary-based sports psychologist — Backlund says he’s ready to prove himself as a top-six forward in the National Hockey League.
He knows the challenge that lies ahead.
“I’ve got to keep working hard,” he said. “But I feel pretty good right now.”
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