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Flames middlemen looking to pick up punch

by Aaron Vickers / Calgary Flames

CALGARY, AB -- A very lengthy, very one-sided one-on-one chat at the tail end of practice between Bob Hartley and Mikael Backlund couldn’t go unnoticed.

And yet the topic of the discussion will go unknown.

“That’s just coaching stuff,” said the Calgary Flames coach in unusually short fashion.

“We’ll leave it at that,” added the centre.

But Backlund’s struggles to find his way this season haven’t been a secret. Fresh off signing a three-year extension in the summer, the 26-year-old has yet to hit his groove.

The statistics show as much.

One goal.

No assists.

Minus-7.

“It’s been up-and-down during the season, pretty inconsistent,” Backlund admitted. “It hasn’t been all terrible. I think I’ve had some good games. There just haven’t been enough of them.”

It’s understandable, Hartley suggested.

‘He got hurt in camp and obviously it has been a little tougher than expected but it’s a young season,” he said. “We count on him and we need him. He’s one of our best two-way players as a forward. He’s a great centreman for us. It’s just a matter of getting him back in gear and he’s going to be alright.”

Backlund is far from alone, too.

Once thought to be a position of strength, Calgary's centres have struggled.

Matt Stajan has one assist in 12 games, while Sean Monahan, perhaps Calgary’s best forward in 2014-15 in netting 31 goals, has just two this season.

Monahan’s minus-7 rating matches Backlund, the second-worst figure among Flames forwards.

“It’s frustrating when pucks are going in the net all the time and you’re on the ice,” said Monahan, who also has five assists in 12 skates. “It’s something I’ve got to be better and find ways to improve that.”

He’s got the support of his coach, though.

“I think that Sean Monahan, at age 20, is one of the best two-way players in the league,” Hartley declared. “I would put him in every situation. You’re going to see him on 3-on-3, 4-on-4, PK, and 5-on-5. I have the utmost trust in him because he’s fully committed. Sometimes you get caught in friendly fire and sometimes it’s your fault. Plus-minus, obviously you don’t want you players minus. We have lots of minuses and that’s a sign that we need to be better defensively.

“Am I ready to throw rocks at Sean Monahan? Absolutely not. This guy is working hard, he’s playing well, he’s trying to play both sides of the puck the way that we want our guys to play and I’ll keep supporting him.”

Monahan has felt the support, but…

“We haven’t been good enough right now,” Monahan said. “We’re starting to get better here and we’ve got to continue to be better. Centre is an important position in this league. You’ve got to have good centremen to win.”

The Flames haven’t been, though.

Calgary has just three wins and seven points through the opening 12 games of the season, a pace that would see them finish with just 48 over an 82-game schedule.

“It comes into play when you’re losing games and you’re frustrated,” Monahan said. “I hate to lose. It gets frustrating. You need that confidence to be a good player. You need to be confident about your game and how you’re playing. That’s kind of what you feed off of.

“I try to stick to the same game. I’m not producing goals or doing much right now so I’ve got to be better. I know that. It’s a mental thing. I’ve talked about it a lot with a lot of people here. I know I’ve got to be better.”

Monahan isn’t the only one.

“The team hasn’t been playing great either, but it starts with everybody in the room being consistent and playing at the top,” Backlund said. “If everybody isn’t doing it then we’re not going to win games. Starting with myself, I’ve been having some good games, but there’s been more not-good-enough games. I’ve got to find a way to pick it up.”

Collectively, Calgary needs to find a way to climb after one of the slowest starts in franchise history.

“Yes, but right now pucks are going in and pucks will go in for them too,” Hartley said. “Sometimes it’s a trend. We had a bad start, we’re not going to hide it, but I don’t see a reason where I’m going to single out one, two, three guys.

“I think that we’re getting better as a team and early on we were not playing well as a team.”

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