CALGARY - The shy, baby-faced Swede who landed in Calgary less than three years ago is long gone.
His hair longer, body leaner and confidence much more accessible, Mikael Backlund is forthcoming about where he wants to start this season.
Right where he left off last year — between Jarome Iginla and Alex Tanguay as the Calgary Flames’ top-line centre.
“That’s what I’ve been working on the whole summer, thinking I want to play on that line and contribute and be a key player on the team,” said the 22-year-old, who scored in his first pre-season contest Tuesday night in Vancouver. “That’s what I’ve been working hard on this summer and thinking of, seeing myself up there with those kind of guys.”
While GM Jay Feaster admitted this summer his team lacks a true No.-1 middle-man, the 22-year-old Backlund represents their best hope internally to graduate to that status.
His ascent might not be as speedy as some might have hoped of the 24th overall pick from the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, but keep in mind he’s only been playing on North American soil for about two-and-a-half years.
“It feels like a long time ago (I arrived),” said Backlund, who actually got into his first NHL contest in January of 2009 while on his way to join the Kelowna Rockets. “But it feels like yesterday I was in Kelowna.”
He helped the Rockets win the WHL championship that spring and had four assists in four games of Memorial Cup action.
But Backlund quickly went from his greatest hockey highs to his lowest lows in Abbotsford the next fall when he turned pro.
“It was a frustrating year for me,” said Backlund, who spent more than half of the 2009-10 season being hounded by then-Heat head coach Jim Playfair about the defensive side of the game. “There was a lot of pressure on me. I struggled a bit.
“The mindset was to get me to be a better defensive player, and it was tough for me to change that. Jim Playfair is a good guy, but he’s a really hard coach. It was new for me, too, having a coach like that.”
Imagine heading to a completely foreign environment, leaving your family and closest friends overseas, being screamed at in your second language at your place of business, and then having little to look forward when you get home.
“A lot of tough days there,” said Backlund, who spent hours on the phone with his parents and sisters, and worked with a mental coach to get him through the difficult adjustment period.
Occasional visits from them helped slightly with the homesickness, but Abbotsford didn’t suit his sunny disposition at all.
“I didn’t like the weather there. It was dark all the time and raining,” Backlund said. “There was not much I could find to be positive about there. I’m real thankful for my family, how much they supported me.
“But I learned from that. Mentally, I got stronger after a half year there. I had a real tough time of life, but I got stronger over it and stronger hockey-wise, too.”
By January, he finally saw the light when the Flames summoned him for his first extended stay. By late March, he was playing for the Flames on a regular basis.
He suited up for just one game with the Heat last season before joining the Flames full-time. And when both Brendan Morrison and David Moss were injured late in the campaign, Backlund took on a much bigger role.
“I’ve always known Mikael would be a real good, solid two-way player in this league with some skill. He was that way in Sweden,” Flames head coach Brent Sutter said. “He needed opportunity to play, and we gave it to him last year — especially last half of the season — to let him develop into what he is, let him start growing as a player.”
Now, Backlund is hoping to pick up where he left off.
“Last season gave me a lot of experience,” Backlund said. “It felt like I gained more confidence through the year and grew into the role and grew into a better player as the year went on.
“I know I can do even better.”