Backlund coming into his own -- Cammy

STEVE MACFARLANE, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:42 AM ET

LOS ANGELES - Mikael Backlund was just a kid suiting up for his first NHL game when Michael Cammalleri last played with him.

But Backlund has come a long way since the 2008-09 season, when the talented Swede first ventured into North American hockey.

“He was just starting. He was just a prospect — you know, just finding his way,” Cammalleri said Wednesday of the former first-round Calgary Flames selection. “He’s developed, for sure.

“Just looking at him, he’s stronger and bigger and filled out and developed.”

Cammalleri told the 22-year-old as much after rejoining the Flames following a trade with the Montreal Canadiens last week.

“Just when we met he said, ‘I got a little bigger,’ ” Backlund said. “It’s been, I don’t know, four years since we played together? My first year here.

“The first time we played together, I was really nervous. A young player, probably 18. A little shy.

“Obviously, I’ve been changing — a little fitter now than I was back then.”

Physically, for sure. Mentally, he’s working on it.

Backlund’s inconsistency and dips in confidence have been keeping him from reaching the sort of heights many expect he’s capable of, especially this season.

He showed Tuesday night in a 2-1 shootout loss to the Sharks in San Jose that he still has the upside that made him worthy of the 24th overall pick in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft.

Playing between Cammalleri and Flames captain Jarome Iginla, Backlund looked quick, hungry, aggressive in San Jose. Most of all, he looked confident.

“Boy, the last three or four games, he’s really been playing well,” said Flames head coach Brent Sutter. “I think he’s really taking it to heart here about what we’ve been talking to him about and going through with him and how important he is to this team. We need him to be a top-six forward for us, and he needs to play well.

“I think he’s excited in the fact he’s having a chance to play with Jarome and Cammy, but I think he was playing well before he got that opportunity the other night.”

He didn’t look out of place.

Assisting on the team’s only goal, Backlund suited up for a season-high 23:01, played on the penalty-kill unit and finished with a plus-1 rating.

But his most memorable play might have been a move from behind the goal-line as he aggressively took the puck to the net for a scoring attempt.

“I thought his compete, work ethic last night was notable for sure,” Cammalleri said. “From what I see just talking to him and communicating with him, he wants to get better, he wants to keep improving … He wants to do all those things you need to do to be a player that you can rely on in this league. That’s a real positive.

“He’s asking questions and working on things. And not only asking — telling, too. Coming and saying, ‘Hey, this is what I’m going to do.’

“I think that’s really important. I think teammates need to push each other that way.

“His overall confidence or persona that way, it’s good to see him developing that way.”

Backlund is working on it.

“I felt the last couple of games I’ve been playing better and better. This is the way I want to play. I know I was struggling a little this season — too much up and down — and I’m trying to find my game,” Backlund added.

“I’ll keep doing it.”

On Twitter: @SUNMacfarlane


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