Johnson: Injuries push Backlund to centre of attention
It’s now or never for former first-rounder as pivot-starved Flames need him to step up
On that 2000-2001 championship team in Colorado, Bob Hartley was blessed to have Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, a young, undamaged Chris Drury and old bucket-’o-bolts himself, Stephane Yelle (with all his body parts more or less still attached; some, albeit, by means of duct tape), operating down Main Street.
Strength at centre has long been regarded as the hallmark of any ambitious hockey operation.
The wheelhouse position. A team’s spine; the foundation of its structure.
Glancing around him now, Hartley must positively mist up, be overcome with nostalgia, at the recollection of those salad days in Denver. Because here, there’s no Silent Joe, no Foppa, no proven No. 1 pivot to lean on.
No Jumbo Joe Thornton, who’ll lead the San Jose Sharks in for the season curtain-raiser on Sunday. No Ryan Getzlaf, who hits town Monday. No Jonathan Toews. No Pavel Datsyuk or Henrik Zetterberg. No one with Ryan Kesler’s indomitable sneer or Anze Kopitar’s extra gear. No one with Henrik Sedin’s panache or David Backes’ big-body crash. No Mikko Koivu. No budding superstar, a la Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. No one in the circle you’d be willing to wager the kid’s college education fund on, like, say, Jarret Stoll in L.A.
And that’s just a sampling of the difference-making centres in the Western Conference. Forget Sid the Kid, Malkin, Stevie Stamkos and the rest of that gang out East.
Centre is, until proven otherwise, shaping up as a black hole for the Calgary Flames.
Czech import Roman Cervenka, who may or not live up to massive, perhaps overripe, pre-billing, remains out indefinitely dealing with the fallout of that blood clot in his left leg. The slick Alex Tanguay is, at age 33, being asked to shift from left wing into the middle. Which is, quite frankly, asking a lot.
Matt Stajan still struggles to rekindle his Toronto mojo. Blair Jones is a solid, unpretentious fourth-line grinder type. And Brad Winchester’s here on a tryout, if only to add a bit of heft to an otherwise small, polite group.
Which brings us, finally, to Mikael Backlund.
The jury’s still very much out on whether Backlund can be a regular contributor at this level, much less if he has the goods to be a go-to guy. First-round picks in their fourth year pro don’t usually sign one-year deals worth $750,000.
But on a team in desperate need of reliability, if not dynamism, down the middle, the 23-year-old may still represent the best chance.
“We had a little talk, me and Bob,” Backlund is saying Monday. “A good meeting. Roman’s out, he’s a great player and we want him back as soon as possible. For me, that doesn’t change anything, if he’s in or out. I still have to prove myself, show them I’m good enough for this level, show them I’m a good top-six player.
“If I want to be a top-six player, it doesn’t matter if guys are hurt or not.”
A year and a half ago, Backlund seemed set for his big chance, pencilled in between Jarome Iginla and Tanguay on the top line heading into camp. Then he wrecked a shoulder, missed half the year and couldn’t find any sort of rhythm after returning, producing a paltry 11 points.
“The whole season,” he sighs, “was just a disaster for me. I came in feeling great but being sidelined the first 40 games was tough. I also know the way I played wasn’t good enough to stay in this league.”
Maybe a new coach, changed environment, will be enough to finally pry the best out of him. But that’s a big maybe.
And he’s running short of time to make his statement.
“I think when we saw Backs leave last year, he knew how important this season was going to be for him,” says Flames’ assistant to the GM Craig Conroy, an old centreman himself, of course. “He wasn’t happy the way things went with the shoulder, then the way he played after he came back.
“The one thing is, during the lockout, he went home” — to Sweden, to suit up with hometown club Vasteras — “and he gained a lot of confidence. He was a point-a-game guy over there. OK, maybe the league’s not the same, but having success gives anyone a boost. You’re thinking: ‘I’m back!’ You saw him score a nice goal today, driving to the net. That’s what we want to see from Mikael.
“He’s getting older. You expect a lot more from him. And he expects more from himself. He’s got to be more of a leader in the room. He’s got to talk. When I was playing, he was a young guy, quiet. But now as he’s moving forward, he’s not the youngest guy anymore.
“He’s got to be ... not physical ... but hard to play against. If there’s a 1-on-1 battle, he’s got to win it. He’s got to WANT to win it. ‘Cause he’s got the skill. He can skate, shoot the puck, pass.
“Now we need all that to translate into the game.”
Backlund believes his stint overseas, 30 points in 23 games, will provide a good kick-start to this abbreviated NHL campaign.
He needs to transform belief into reality. They do, too.
“I’m trying to be more like I was in Sweden,” he insists. “Mentally, I’ve changed a little bit. More positive. Feeling better about myself. A little more cocky. I can’t let guy think they’re better than me. More cockiness; believe in myself. When I’m playing against Bobby Ryan, Kopitar, I was better than them because I was producing more than them. So I feel like a better player now.”
Backlund has reached a very delicate stage in his NHL dream. On a one-year deal, there isn’t a lot of wiggle room anymore. Twenty-three may not seem old, but he’s reached fish or cut-bait time.
“I’m hoping,” says Conroy, “that this is the moment it all comes together for him; that we can look back on these 48 games and say ‘Wow! Remember that half-season of 2012-2013? That was when Mikael Backlund’s career took off ...’
“This is a huge year for him. Huge. No question. But it’s also a huge opportunity. If he was sitting in Detroit right now, with Datsyuk and Zetterberg, he might be wondering where on earth he fits in.
“With us, it’s there for the taking. So step up and grab it. Don’t defer. Don’t worry about stepping on anyone’s toes. You’ve got to want it because if you don’t want it badly enough, you can bet someone else will.
“He knows that. I’ve heard him say so on the radio. And I know everyone in the city’s thinking it: ‘C’mon Backsie, it’s time.’ ”
Yes. It most certainly is.
George Johnson is the Herald’s sports columnist. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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