If you want to be a good player in this league, you’re going to play against good players. You’re going to get to play against the best [defencemen] on every team. It’s a fun challenge and instead of being all nervous about it, I’m just thinking every night I’m going to be better than them, outplay them, and be the best guy out there. - Mikael Backlund
CALGARY, AB -- Earlier in the season, frustration was mounting for Mikael Backlund.
The Calgary Flames 2007 first round pick's confidence was taking a beating as he struggled to produce offence and manage the puck. He wasn't pleased with his game and was forcing the issue most nights, trying too hard and gripping his stick too tightly.
The effort was there, no doubt, but nothing was clicking for the Swede.
Then, one night in late November, something shifted.
“Starting at the father’s trip, when my dad was there, that was when my game turned around little bit. In the LA game, when Cammy scored a late goal, I think that was the game that turned my season around," Backlund summarized.
"Since then, I feel I’ve been playing really good hockey. Even though maybe I haven’t put up points every night, I still feel I’ve been working hard and making good plays. Doing the smaller things. I’ve done a good job with all the little things.”
The game he's referring to - a 2-1 win over the Los Angeles Kings on Nov. 30 - was a banner evening for the 24-year-old. He set up Mike Cammalleri's game-winner at 19:37 of the third period, logged 19:14 of ice time, and won five of his eight draws.
The outing seemed to swing momentum in his favour, and ever since, Backlund has looked like a different player. With his confidence buoyed, the pivot's puck possession game has flourished and when the puck lands on his stick, his first instinct isn't to dish it off to a linemate; he wants to dictate the play.
"I’ve been holding onto the puck, making plays, wanting the puck all over ice, not being afraid of making mistakes, and trying to take charge out there," Backlund said. "Trying to be the guy who makes the plays."
"When I struggled, that’s what I did; throw pucks around and rimmed them. Now I’m trying to make good plays, be a smart player, and make good decisions."
His progression has led to the coaching staff utilizing him in far more situations and giving him more ice time, a move which has paid off for both parties.
Nine of his 11 goals and 16 of his 23 points were recorded after Nov. 30. He has moved up to centre the Flames top line. He doesn't shy away from physical play, something that has become more noticeable while retrieving the puck in the corners. Backlund has been averaging over 20:00 a night since that fateful night in Los Angeles.
Needless to say, people have started to take notice of the centre.
"He’s been playing great. It’s funny, the media picks up on stuff like that because he’s starting to score some goals. But he plays the right way and he’s been doing that for a long time," Flames veteran Matt Stajan said. "Now the puck is going in for him and he’s got some confidence, he’s running with it. It’s great to see."
Bench boss Bob Hartley felt so strongly about Backlund's growth and maturity, he placed an 'A' on the forward's jersey when Mike Cammalleri was sidelined with a concussion.
“It was a happy surprise," he smiled. "It made me feel even better about myself … Maybe work a little extra hard, knowing that A on you and you’ve got to show you know how to work and all of that … It was a nice boost."
"I always want to be a leader. I don’t know if I’m the most vocal guy, more of a shy person. But I’m trying to be on ice. I want to be a leader on the ice, trying to take charge. I felt like I’ve been doing that a lot better since mid-November or so. Getting more and more comfortable, getting better at it. Maybe speak a little more on the bench and in the room."
While he is pleased with how his season is coming along, Backlund is far from satisfied. He feels the progression he has made this season is just one step forward in his development. The Vasteras, SWE native wants to establish himself as a top player not just for the Flames but throughout the league.
"If you want to be a good player in this league, you’re going to play against good players. You’re going to get to play against the best [defencemen] on every team. It’s a fun challenge and instead of being all nervous about it, I’m just thinking every night I’m going to be better than them, outplay them, and be the best guy out there."
"When I was younger, I would have had a little more respect and be a little more nervous but now, I’m just going out there and trying to grab the challenge."