March 3, 2009
Rockets received Swede boost
By SCOTT FISHER, SUN MEDIA
A number of teams improved their chances of a lengthy playoff run at the WHL trade deadline.
The Calgary Hitmen brought league-leading goal scorer Joel Broda from Moose Jaw.
The Lethbridge Hurricanes acquired NHL first-round draft pick Kyle Beach from Everett.
But the Kelowna Rockets might have made the best deal.
The Rockets added Swedish world junior star Mikael Backlund, and didn't have to give up anything in return.
Disgruntled with his reduced role on his Swedish Div. II squad, the Calgary Flames first-rounder opted to stay in Canada after the world junior tournament and finish out the season with the already-stacked Rockets.
Team Canada world junior star Jamie Benn, who leads the Rockets with 39 goals this season, said adding a talent such as Backlund into the mix was a big bonus for his club.
"That was a huge pick-up for us," Benn said. "Ever since he's been here, he's been great for us.
"He's a good fit for our team. He's a really great guy and we're glad to have him."
Benn said he and fellow Team Canada teammate Tyler Myers haven't been waving their gold medals in front of Backlund's nose.
But he said the world junior silver medallist has a good sense of humour.
"He's actually a pretty funny guy," Benn said. "He's really polite, but he makes the guys laugh."
Former Calgary Hitmen winger Ian Duval also joined the Rockets from the Moose Jaw Warriors at the trade deadline.
Duval said the Swedish import is entertaining, but is still learning the North American game.
"He's a pretty funny guy and he's just an amazing player," Duval said.
"Probably the style of play and the number of games that you play (is the biggest thing to get used to).
"Talking to him, he said he plays 42 games in a season. That's how much he's playing in the second half (in the WHL).
"It seems to be a little bit tough on him at times, but he's adjusting to it good."
Backlund, who turns 20 just before the playoffs begin later this month, has put up eight goals and 23 points in 23 WHL games.
He said it's taken a while to get accustomed to the WHL's busy schedule.
"It's taken some time to get used to, but I've felt better and better," Backlund said.
"There's a lot of travel during the nights, and not so much sleep sometimes.
"I have to get used to it. It's good to have this year to learn and hopefully be more prepared for next year."
The 6-foot-1, 194-pounder is also adjusting to the smaller North American ice surfaces.
"I played in some small rinks during the world juniors so I got used to it a little before I came," he said.
"It's a lot more physical over here, and it's a more intense game. It's faster, too, because the rink is smaller."
The Rockets have been on fire since adding Backlund and Duval as well as enforcer Ryley Grantham and goaltender Mark Guggenberger.
They've gone 15-4-1-3 in Backlund's 23 appearances, including wins over Calgary and Vancouver.
Surprisingly, they've also lost to bottom feeders Portland, Chilliwack and Red Deer.
The Rockets would love to finish in third spot in the Western Conference and avoid a likely second-round matchup with the Vancouver Giants. They're one point behind Spokane and will host the Chiefs Thursday night.
Beasts of the East
As the WHL heads into the home stretch, there are plenty of interesting races to keep an eye on.
The most interesting battle is between the Edmonton Oil Kings and Prince Albert Raiders. The Oil Kings lead the Raiders by two points in the race for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
The race for first overall in the entire WHL will likely be settled Friday when the Vancouver Giants host the Calgary Hitmen. Both teams have locked up their conferences.