Johan Backlund is one of the goalies who has fallen victim both to injuries and the numbers' game. Two seasons ago at this time, the veteran Swedish netminder was in the midst of a strong North American debut season in the American Hockey League and had worked his way into the mix to compete for an NHL job with the Philadelphia Flyers. It has been nothing but injuries and frustration for him ever since.
Now 30 years of age, Backlund's NHL dreams may have come to an end.
Backlund, who will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, realizes that he is auditioning not only for Kärpät but for other potential suitors in leagues around Europe. There is interest in the former Swedish national team goaltender, but he must return to form and stay healthy.
"I feel really good in the hip, of course, [but] it's only been two games so I'm not really sure," Backlund said in English at Kärpät's introductory press conference. "When you don't play for a while, you don't really know how good of shape you're in. But I feel good now and I have to get some good practices in to show that I can play."
Backlund is not a shoo-in to start for Kärpät. Currently in seventh place in the 14-team Sm-Liiga, goaltending has not been a problem for the team. Starting netminder Ville Hostikka, a former Flyers prospect himself, has played well. Hostikka, 26, has been one of the circuit's better goaltenders this season, posting a 2.24 goals-against average, .920 save percentage and a pair of shutouts in 29 starts.
"I've heard it's a young team and they've been playing really good lately and the goalie is playing good, too," said Backlund. "It's going to be tough to get in there, but I want to help the team to go far in the playoffs. That's the goal."
Prio to coming to North America, Backlund established himself as a late-blooming standout in Sweden's Elitserien. The native of Skellefteå competed at the Allsvenskan (minor league) level for Skellefteå AIK prior to the team's promotion to Elitserien. He debuted in Elitserien for Leksands IF in 2003-04 but had his share of struggles while playing for a losing team that was relegated to Allsvenskan at the end of his second season.
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On March 26, 2009, the Flyers signed Backlund to a one-year, two-way NHL contract.
At age 28, Backlund was too old to be considered a rookie when he reported for his first North American training camp. Nevertheless, he had to go through the same learning curve as any goaltender coming from Europe; acclimating himself to the angles on the smaller rink and adapting to the greater frequency with which opposing attackers crash the net.
The transition went well. With the Flyers beset by injuries to Ray Emery, Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher, Backlund earned his first NHL start on March, 27, 2010 in an afternoon game against the Pittsburgh Penguins. But Backlund, too, had only recently returned to action from a groin pull. He re-aggravated the injury midway through his NHL debut and had to leave the game after two periods.
Little did anyone know it any time, but Backlund's first Flyers starting appearance would also be his last. He dressed as a backup during the first three rounds of the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and appeared briefly in Game 3 of the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Bruins. With the Flyers trailing 3-1 late in regulation, Philadelphia coach Peter Laviolette changed goaltenders in order to give his players a respite while Backlund donned his gear and skated to the crease. Backlund, who is an above-average skating goaltender, then raced to the bench for an extra attacker at the first opportunity.
Backlund's strong play in the AHL convinced the Flyers that he could compete for a job with the big club. As a result, the team signed him to a two-year contract extension, with the 2011-12 campaign being paid as a one-way contract. But the goalie's body betrayed him.
He underwent hip surgery in the summer of 2010 to repair a torn labrum, and the recovery was slow. Backlund got a late start at training camp, and was ineffective for the Phantoms when he returned to action. In the meantime, rookie goalie Sergei Bobrovsky stepped up and won an NHL job with the Flyers.
Still playing at far less than 100 percent, Backlund appeared in just 33 AHL games last year, posting a disappointing .890 save percentage to go along with a 3.28 GAA. He lost his AHL starting job after Michael Leighton (battling to return from back surgery) cleared waivers and the Flyers assigned their primary 2010 Stanley Cup Playoff goalie to the Phantoms.
Hip issues remained for Backlund heading into this season. As a result, he fell to No. 5 on the Philadelphia goaltending depth chart, behind Ilya Bryzgalov, Bobrovsky, Leighton and free-agent acquisition Jason Bacashihua. Backlund has been limited to one AHL appearance (unscored upon on 15 shots during a 31-minute stint) and a shootout loss for the ECHL's Trenton Titans in which he turned back 24 of 25 saves during regulation and overtime.
Finally back to reasonably full health, Backlund now found himself a man without a team. There was no interest in the 30-year-old among other NHL teams, so trading Backlund was not a viable option for Philadelphia. As a result, the Flyers gave him permission to line up an opportunity in Europe and then loaned him to Kärpät for the rest of the season.
"I heard a lot of good things about the organization, and they've always been a good team in Finland," said Backlund. "It was pretty interesting for me to try SM-Liiga. I've played against some Finnish teams but I've never played in Sm-Liiga, so I just wanted a new challenge."