Backlund made great strides this season with the Flames
What a difference a year makes: Swedish forward has added grit and confidence to his game
For Mikael Backlund, the defining moment of the 2013 National Hockey League season came in a meaningless game against the Anaheim Ducks.
The furor erupted on April 19 when Anaheim defenceman Ben Lovejoy took Curtis Glencross out with a questionable knee-on-knee-hit that ended up sidelining the Calgary assistant captain for the rest of the season.
Much to the surprise of the Saddledome crowd of 19,289, Backlund stepped in, dropped the gloves and fought Lovejoy to send a message.
Sure, Backlund lost the bout by a wide margin. But he gained the respect of his teammates, his coaches, and the long-suffering fans dying for any kind of positive sign for the future.
“When I saw who jumped in there, I was shocked at first,” Glencross says. “I give him a lot of credit for it. Right after that, I told him, ‘thanks for stepping in.’ It showed that fierce side of him.
“It’s good. We need that out of Backs. We need him to play a bit grittier of a game, and that’s a step forward for him.”
In this lockout-shortened season, Backlund took a massive step forward from the uncertain, shaky young man we saw on garbage-bag day one short year ago. At that point, the jury was out on whether the Swedish pivot would ever prove himself as a legitimate NHLer.
But then came the arrival of Bob Hartley as head coach and a promise to give every player a clean slate.
Backlund, 24, seized the opportunity to prove himself to the new boss.
“I feel like I matured as a person and as a player this year,” says Backlund, who had to turn down an invitation to represent Sweden at the World Hockey Championships due to a lingering fracture in his right foot. “I’ve been more confident this year, and I’ve been playing the game I used to play as a younger player. But I’m also talking the physicality to another level, playing harder and blocking more shots and making more hits.
“That’s the next step I’ve got to take — be a more complete player.”
In reality, Backlund began building his case as a more complete player during the lockout by playing at home in Sweden. When camp finally opened in Calgary, he arrived in game shape while others battled daily for their wind.
In the first two weeks of the season, Backlund played some of the best hockey of his career, only to wrench his knee on Feb. 7 in Columbus.
He sat out 14 games, returned to the lineup and then fractured his right foot on March 15 against Nashville.
“I got injured again, but I battled hard to get back quicker than I was supposed to,” Backlund says. “And then I had another injury and played through that, so I’ve been learning how to handle that and to play my game.”
He played hurt, but still collected eight goals and 16 points in 32 games.
No wonder general manager Jay Feaster singled out the first-round (24th overall) pick in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft as one of a handful of positives to come out of the 2013 season.
On a daily basis, Backlund could be spotted working under the close eye of Hartley, assistant coach Martin Gelinas and special assistant to the general manager Craig Conroy.
“Those guys showed him a lot of video,” Feaster says. “They worked with him on the ice when there was an opportunity to work with him on the ice. And again, credit to him. The coaches are willing to work with every player and put the kind of time in that they did with Mikael Backlund.
“It has to be a two-way street, and there needs to be reciprocity.”
Playing on a one-year deal worth $725,000, Backlund entered the season with plenty to prove in a fight for his hockey career. A restricted free agent, he expects to sign a contract extension with the club in the near future.
But he realizes complacency is the enemy.
“Coming into this year, I guess a lot of guys didn’t know what to expect,” Backlund says. “A lot of people didn’t think I had it anymore, probably.
“There were guys who still believed in me. Jay and the organization did. I’m thankful for that. I came here and wanted to prove that I’m good enough to play in this league.”
“Now my next mission is to prove that I can be a good player in this league — be a consistent, solid, top guy in this league, and that’s my goal.”
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