SUN Hockey Pool

Backlund steps up with opportunity

STEVE MACFARLANE, Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 10:28 PM ET

Losing Daymond Langkow indefinitely left a big hole to fill at a time the Calgary Flames couldn’t afford to miss players.

So rookie centre Mikael Backlund was forced to take another leap.

It’s been quite a year for the 21-year-old Swede, who was playing pro hockey in his homeland a little more than a year ago before making the jump to the Western Hockey League’s Kelowna Rockets.

Another hop to the American Hockey League in the fall proved a little more difficult, but after some tutoring from a feisty Jim Playfair and his Abbotsford Heat coaching staff, Backlund has been a pleasant surprise in his 18 NHL games this season.

Still subject to growing pains, he turned the puck over a couple of times in his own end in the first period of Wednesday’s

2-1 decision over the Phoenix Coyotes.

Making up for it with key faceoff wins and a big blocked shot, Backlund was given ice time in the final minute while securing the victory. That kind of trust has to be earned.

“I’m real happy to see Brent put me out in different situations,” Backlund said, knowing he’s getting a great opportunity with Langkow sidelined. “Obviously, if guys get hurt, somebody has got to step up.”

Backlund is doing just that.

Not only is he contributing with timely offence, racking up a goal and seven assists in 18 games so far, but the kid is pretty adept at defending in his own zone.

“That’s been a thing I’ve been working on since I started playing pro hockey in Sweden,” Backlund said.

It’s improved leaps and bounds since then, and he attributes that to the constant encouragement from Playfair.

“He was all over me the whole season about defensive zone,” Backlund said with a laugh. “It’s really important up here in the NHL. He’s been all over me, but it was good for me.

“I’ve been learning a lot down there.”

Reminded again of the YouTube sensation his minor-league head coach has become for his Hulk impression and stick smashing on the weekend, Backlund laughs and says as emotional as Playfair can be while getting his message across, he was never that extreme.

“No, no, no. He didn’t go nuts. He just told me what to do,” Backlund said with a smile. “Sometimes, he’d yell at me because he had to, because I wasn’t playing good or taking responsibility.

“But that’s what a coach has to do when you don’t play as good as you can. And that’s his style, because he has a lot of passion and a lot of emotions in him.”

Bringing out the best in Backlund, Playfair’s guidance has helped the rookie settle in on the second line with Rene Bourque and Ales Kotalik the last couple of games.

With goals in back-to-back games and his latest a direct result of a smart play from Backlund off the boards, Kotalik has been impressed with his young teammate’s skills.

“He’s a great guy. He listens when you talk to him, and he’s gonna be a great playmaking centreman for this organization. He’s got everything. He’s got vision. He’s got puck handling and he can make plays,” Kotalik said. “I’m sure he’s gonna be a great player for this organization for years to come.”

This year, the kid is just happy to be contributing in the NHL.

“I’m just living in the moment. I’m really enjoying the ride,” Backlund said.

“This fall, I was struggling a lot. I was starting to stop believing in myself almost.

“It feels really good right now, having success after struggling and working hard down there.”


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