CALGARY, AB -- Offensively, it was a long time coming for Mikael Backlund.
No Calgary Flames forward elevated their game quite like the 27-year-old Swede – certainly not over the second half of the season.
After signing a three-year contract extension with the Flames last summer, Backlund enjoyed his most productive offensive campaign, posting career highs in games played (82), goals (21), assists (26), points (47) and a team-leading three shorthanded goals and a plus-10 rating.
In fact, only Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and captain Mark Giordano racked up more points.
Not bad company for a player that has gone through his share of injuries and offensive struggles over the course of six National Hockey League seasons.
“I feel like I took a big step this year,” said Backlund, who netted his first-career hat trick during the Flames’ home finale against Vancouver. “I pride myself on working hard and improving every day. I felt I was much more poised and confident with the puck this season.”
Backlund’s career-best numbers are even more impressive when considering he tallied only a single point in his first 13 games of the season and five goals through his first 50.
“Other than my slow start, I feel like I worked hard, created a lot more offence and, at the end of the day, I was rewarded for it,” Backlund said.
After undergoing abdominal surgery which limited him to 52 outings in 2014-15, Backlund suited up for all 82 games this season for the first time in his career.
“It’s a long season, lots of games, so to stay healthy this year was exciting because I have had tough years in the past,” he said.
Flames coach Bob Hartley, who leans on Backlund to play tough minutes against the NHL’s best – lauds Calgary’s 2007 first round pick for his dependable two-way game.
“He is one of the most underrated players in the league,” praised Hartley. “He has great vision, great hockey sense. For me, playing good defence should help you score goals. You spend less time in your own zone, you create more turnovers.
“Backs was finding the puck and the puck was finding Backs. And that’s a good combination.”
It may also be a stepping stone of what’s to come offensively for the 6-foot-1, 200-pound forward, who amassed six goals and eight points over the final four games.
Going forward, Hartley is excited to see what the future holds for his versatile centre who will be expected to supply secondary scoring behind the likes of Gaudreau, Monahan and Sam Bennett.
“It’s always great to see guys finish the year on a good note,” Hartley said. “Backs was one of our most consistent players over the last month. Even though he’s a young centreman he’s played in many situations and he has grown very well within the organization.”
As productive as his season was personally, Backlund called it a “frustrating” one from a team standpoint.
“This is not where we wanted to be,” said Backlund, who has joined Team Sweden in preparation for the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship that takes place May 6-22 in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia. “We came in with expectations but we had a terrible start and we weren’t able to catch up.”
But it hasn’t changed his belief in this group.
“I have no doubt in my mind that we can find a way to get back to the playoffs,” Backlund said. “It’s going to be exciting next year. I’m already excited for it. I wish we could fast forward and get going.”