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Aulie, Wahl and Backlund make grade

by Laurence Heinen / Calgary Flames
With defenceman Keith Aulie being named to the Team Canada Monday, the Calgary Flames will have three prospects playing at the 2009 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships in Ottawa. Forwards Mikael Backlund and Mitch Wahl were previously selected to suit up for Sweden and the United States respectively.

Mikael Backlund
Flames Director of Scouting Tod Button said the event always provides a great opportunity for National Hockey League teams to see their prospects in action against the best talent in their age group in the world.

“The experience, you can’t teach it,” Button said. “It’s a great tournament to gauge talent.
It’s a really good evaluation tool.”

Aulie, Calgary’s fourth round pick (117th overall) in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, is one of eight defencemen to crack the lineup of the Canadian squad.

“We project him as a strong defensive defenceman who’s able to get the puck out of his own end but is hard to play against physically,” said Button of the 6-foot-6, 215-pound captain of the Brandon Wheat Kings. “They need that size on the back end to make it tough on the Mikael Backlunds and the Mitch Wahls of the world.”

Wahl, an 18-year-old centreman who plays for the defending Memorial Cup champion Spokane Chiefs, will suit up for the first time for the U.S. squad at the annual tournament.

“It’ll be a great experience for him,” Button said. “He hasn’t played at this level. It’s the top guys in the world in their age group.”
Keith Aulie

Wahl, who the Flames selected with their second pick (48th overall) of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, said he’s looking forward to the experience of competing against the best junior-aged hockey players in the world.

“It’s always a big honour to represent your country,” said the 6-foot, 175-pound native of Seal Beach, Calif., who has already been told he’ll play on a line with Spokane teammate Drayson Bowman. “We’ll have some good chemistry and we’ll mix in a good right winger there too. I’ll be counted on to produce offensively and help the team score goals. I’ve got to do that to help the team out.”

Already being familiar with his left winger should bode well for Wahl at the World Juniors, Button said.

“They’ve got that chemistry, so that will help them immediately,” said Button, adding that Wahl won’t have the pressure of being Team USA’s top centreman. “He’s going to play behind a pretty good centre in Colin Wilson. He’s not going to have to go up against the top defencemen or the top guys.”

The same won’t be the case for Backlund, Calgary’s top pick (24th overall) in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft.

“The one thing with Mikael this year that’s going to be interesting and neat to watch is last year he had a really good tournament, but he was the second guy there (behind St. Louis Blues rookie forward Patrick Bergland),” Button said. “He wasn’t their go-to guy in Sweden. That helped insulate Mikael a little bit.”

The Vasteras native will now be counted upon to lead Team Sweden offensively in Ottawa.

“This year, he’s going to be the guy,” Button added. “He’s going to have to produce and he’s going to have to produce now against the other teams’ top players. They’re going to always have their top defencemen and top forwards against him. It’ll be interesting to watch Mikael in that scenario. I’m not concerned about it. It’ll be another great experience for him playing in front of a really rowdy crowd as well.”

Mitch Wahl
Button described the 6-foot, 196-pound centre as one of the top offensive players in his 19-year-old age group.

“He’s got a really good shot and he’s got good vision,” Button said. “His best asset is he can make skilled plays at high speed.”

Button and his scouting staff have high hopes that the trio of Calgary prospects can gain valuable experience at the World Juniors.

“I remember Eric Nystrom when he played in Halifax and he talked about the atmosphere,” recalled Button. “He said some kids can’t handle it. It’s tough.”

In turn, it can also help develop young prospects into better professional players down the line.

“In the past it helped Dustin Boyd out a tremendous amount,” Button noted. “Going to the first camp, he didn’t make the team, but the first time he went, he went as an injury reserve and you could see his game getting better. Dion Phaneuf from one World Junior to the next his game improved so much, it was just incredible.”

The 2009 IIHF World Junior Championships will be broadcast live starting on Boxing Day by TSN/RDS and on The FAN Radio Network (check local listings).
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