SUN Hockey Pool

Backlund's trial by fire

RANDY SPORTAK, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 5:05 PM ET

A rookie season is filled with lessons.

Usually, the heavy instruction is at the start of the year and tapers off as time passes.

Not for Mikael Backlund.

Not with the position he’s been put in since the Calgary Flames lost both Brendan Morrison and David Moss to injury.

Because of Calgary’s lack of depth up the middle, Backlund was placed in the plum position on the defacto top line with Jarome Iginla and Alex Tanguay.

There have been highs — a strong game against the Colorado Avalanche — but some tough lows.

During the team’s recent four-game road trip, Backlund was looking across the faceoff dot at some of the most talented centres in the league: San Jose’s Joe Thornton, Anze Kopitar in Los Angeles and Ryan Getzlaf of the Anaheim Ducks, who the Flames will face at home Wednesday night again.

In those four games, Backlund collected just one assist while posting a minus-6 rating.

“It’s an experience for him and he’s handled it pretty well,” said head coach Brent Sutter. “Obviously, we need him playing well. He’s a key part of it moving down the road. We need Back to play like he’s a top two centre for us, because he’s getting put in those situations. We need him to respond and he’s playing pretty well with it.”

Since Backlund was drafted 24th overall in 2007, hopes have been high the Flames may have found a talented centre to play on the top two lines.

Backlund, who turned 22 a couple of weeks ago, appears on that path.

However, the 6-foot, 200-lb. forward — who’s netted nine goals and 21 points this season — has shown he needs time before being thrown into that role on a full-time basis.

This eye-opening stretch has proven it, but also shown him what he must do.

“There’s some good players to be against when I play on the first two lines. It’s a big opportunity and fun,” he said. “Those are the guys you want to play against. That’s how you get better, going against the best players in the league.

“It’s a really exciting time. We’re a lot better team when everybody’s playing, but somebody has to take their spots. I’ve been given some chances and trying to do my best with it.”

Iginla knows Backlund has had some rough moments, but believes the young centre will be better off for it in the long run.

After all, it takes time adjusting to a top role when you’re facing the best players, not only at forward but the defence, every shift.

“His confidence has been growing, from trying to hanging in there for with those guys to wanting to beat them,” Iginla said. “He wants to have a good night against them. That’s a big step, believing not only you belong but can go the next level.

“He played them hard and skated well.”

When asked what he must improve upon after going through the past few weeks, Backlund said, “everything.”

“I feel a lot better after Christmas than I did before. I feel I’m better and can play against the best players in the league and can handle it,” he said. “Hopefully it’ll be a long season this year, and then I’ll have a good summer and take the next step next year.”

randy.sportak@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/RandySportak


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