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MIKAEL SELKE

Backlund didn't get nominated for the prestigious award this season but many feel it's only a matter of time

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames / calgaryflames.com

Stencilled on the wall outside the double-doors leading into the Calgary Flames' inner sanctum, ringing an image of the singular '89 Stanley Cup-celebration, the famous names are there to be remembered, revered.

A rundown of the major NHL hardware winners from the beginning through today.

The Calder Trophy is represented, the Lady Byng, an Art Ross, Rocket Richard, Jack Adams, Vezina and William M. Jennings.

But not one Selke Trophy amongst the booty.

Joel Otto hopes that'll change soon.

Twice, in '93 and '95, the 6-foot-4, 220-LB. - the largest export to come out of Bemidji since Paul Bunyan - was named a Selke finalist.

He is, virtually by acclamation, over 730 games in - fourth most in history - the most effective defensive centre this franchise has yet produced.

But Otto can see Mikael Backland's name going where his never did, where no one's ever has, actually: Up there stencilled on the wall as a Selke Trophy recipient.

"For sure, he's right there,'' says Otto, now, of course, an assistant coach for the WHL'S Calgary Hitmen. "He certainly had a breakout year. The Selke's about defensive play but it's also, good or bad, a mixture of offensive prowess, to boot.

"Mikael certainly fit that mould this year.

"He and his line went up against most of the big lines and he was still able to produce offensively. He's evolving into a complete two-way player.

"I've watched him take face-offs and I think he's improved so much in that area, too. His competitive level is high.

"He exemplifies so much of what the Selke is about."

Despite forcing his way into what is invariably an old-boys-club Selke conversation, finishing plus-9 while racking up career highs in each major offensive category, the 28-year-old Swedish pivot found himself left off the Selke short list, finalist nods going to Boston perennial Patrice Bergeron, Mikko Koivu of the Minnesota Wild and cantankerous Ryan Kesler of the Anaheim Ducks.

"I mean, I read a lot about it, heard a lot about it but those three guys are very deserving,'' said Backlund at season's close.

"I never expected it.

"Of course, it would've been very cool if I'd been nominated. But going into the year I had no thoughts of being a Selke candidate.

"So, no, I'm not disappointed. I've got to improve my game."

Otto can relate to being up against formidable trophy-worthy opposition.

"I lost to Killer (Doug Gilmour) and Ron Francis the two years I was up for it. These guys were great defensive players and they put up a lot of big numbers.

"I don't follow that closely anymore but the guys that have won lately - Kesler a couple times, I believe. Bergeron. Kopitar - they personify the same attributes Mikael brings."

Traditionally, the Selke has been an accumulative, earn-your-spurs-first type award, players going on runs of finalist bids and trophy wins.

Earlier this season, as Backlund's name began to creep more and more insidiously into the hardware conversation, Flames' winger Kris Versteeg was spot-on in saying:

"It seems you've got get in there first. Get your foot in the door, get recognized. Be up for it two or three years before you actually win."

Consider Backlund's foot now officially wedged in the door jamb.

A truly impressive turn, particularly considering the the early transition period required down at the 'Dome.

"We were all searching for where we fit. New coaches, a whole new system, new players, guys missing camp, last-minute signings and trades," he said.

"But we found a way as a group. We moved on. For every adversity we met we got stronger as a team.

"Fortunately we didn't get the result we wanted at the end, in the playoffs, but we played some good hockey.

"It wasn't good enough but I thought we played well.

"I always push myself to get better, become a better player. I wanted to be a leader for this team, take that on, make sure we go to the playoffs after missing the year before.

"I fiinished on a good note the year before which was important for me confidence-wise.

"Getting to the World Cup was a big boost for me, too. With all that I wanted to take another step and I felt like I did that."

As the fulcrum on the 3M Line, Backlund set personal highs in goals, assists, points and GWG while facing a nightly parade of top centres: Toews, Sedin, Thornton, Getzlaf, McDavid, Couture.

In Otto's day, the names were no less luminous.

"There was a pile of great players. Messier, of course, in our division. Francis. (Mario) Lemieux, for sure. Dale Hunter. I'd be out there against Adam Oates, at times.

"Back then, though, I mostly went up against physical guys. I wasn't necessarily matched up against Gretzky, say.

"Badger (Bob Johnson) used to tell me I was going to be the next Tim Kerr, I was going to be this awesome points guy. I did produce some but primarily I evolved my game into being shutdown centre.

"I think it's important for Mikael to continue to produce offensively. Me, I became the defensive, penalty-killing forward.

"I think Mikael has so much to offer, at both ends of the ice. He can score and has the ability to skate with the top players in today's game to be that shutdown guy against any type of centreman.

"And that's what being a Selke Trophy winner is all about."

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