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Ready To Make The Leap

by Torie Peterson / Calgary Flames

Every summer, NHL clubs eagerly watch as their prospects hit the ice at development camps, hoping one of their rookies will be able to make the leap to becoming a full-time NHL player.

Player development coach Ron Sutter certainly has an idea as to which rookie he expects to suit up with Flames this fall.

"Who has the best shot? Well, Mikael Backlund will hopefully be here full-time. I don't think there's any reason why he shouldn't be. He proved that last year."

With 24 NHL games under his belt, Backlund certainly has the experience to make him a standout at this year's development camp. Some have even questioned if the former first-round pick even needs to be at the camp this season, citing his 20 points through 23 regular season games last year as a reason to push him straight through to the training camp in September.

However, Sutter views Backlund's presence at the camp this week a bit differently than the naysayers.

"I think it's important to remember that Mikael just has one year of pro under his belt and all entry-level kids are eligible to come to this camp," Sutter stated. "Really, he's no different than the other kids. You look at Buffalo's Tyler Myers. He went to their camp. It's all about development, it's all about learning and I think it's important for Mikael to be here and not get too far ahead of the game.

"He's still learning and he's a kid that is still green. He's still got a long way to go. We don't treat anyone any differently whether he's a first round pick or a seventh round pick, these kids still have a lot to learn in terms of development and that's why he's here."

Backlund always views his attendence as a positive step in his career.

"I feel good about it. It's a good opportunity for me to show the coaches and all the staff what I'm about. It's good - you get better as a player. You get in a lot of skating and skill development practices so it's good for me. I want to get better every day so it's good for me have this opportunity to get better.

"It's been my dream since I was little kid to play in the NHL and hopefully I can do it next year full time. It's been my goal for a long time now. I've been working on the whole summer, thinking I want to make the roster and the team this year. I really hope I can make it and I think I have good chance to do it too."

The 2009-10 season was an arduous one for the young Swede. After attending training camp last fall, he was shipped to the Abbotsford Heat. At the start of the season, Backlund saw his development stall slightly.

"I started up at camp, got sent down and mentally I was down for bit because I wanted to play up here of course," he said on Monday afternoon. "I struggled a bit but I kept working hard and did my job. I was working hard on and off the ice all the time and I was trying to be positive. That was a hard time for me, playing down there. But it was good for me - learning to be a pro and taking care of yourself and stuff like that."

His persistence paid off and in January, he was called up to play with the Flames. Notching his first NHL goal in just his second game of the season, the centerman began to turn the heads of the coaching staff.

"When I got called up, I got a lot of confidence and played really good and brought that with me the rest of the season. I thought that after Christmas I played better and better every day."

After the regular season had ended for the Flames, Backlund headed back to help the Heat through two rounds of the AHL playoffs. Shortly after Abbotsford had been eliminated, Backlund was on a plane to Germany to compete in the World Hockey Championships for Sweden.

"I was really tired after the season. It was a long season, a lot of games and ballot of different places, a lot of traveling. Especially the first game of the World Championships, I was really tired because I was sick. The day I landed, I played so it was kind of hard. I got like three hours of sleep that night. But it was so much fun playing there," he grinned.

Sweden ended up picking up a bronze medal in the tournament, something Backlund is particularly pleased with.

"There was a lot of pride, representing my country. It was really fun. It was too bad we didn't win the gold because we were a good young team but we were close. I was disappointed but we got a bronze medal and I'm really proud of that. It was a lot of fun."

After his whirlwind season ended, he retreated for some much-needed rest and relaxation.

"First I went home for a week then for a week to Greece with both my older and younger sister. It was an all-inclusive holiday - you know, just relax and sunbathe all day at the beach.And then I took another week so for three weeks after the season I just did nothing and had fun.

"I didn't think of hockey at all, just relaxed. You've got to do that - refresh your brain from hockey and get your body to get going again. It was good for me to get three weeks off."

After his vacation, Backlund began to prepare himself for the task of making the Flames roster in the fall. After his season had ended in Abbotsford, the coaching staff gave him advice on what he needed to work on to maximize his chances of making the squad.

"Get a little quicker and get better speed and stuff like that. So I've been working a lot on speed in the gym - stairs, quick running, sprints."

Finishing up last season centering a line comprised of Jarome Iginla and Rene Bourque, Backlund had impressed hockey operations so much that general manager Darryl Sutter said he'd like to see the 21 year-old in a top-six role this year. While hearing this delighted Backlund, he knows the first step to have a productive camp this week.

"Of course I'm happy to hear that but it's up to me. I have to play really good and perform well at the camp. That's what I'm going to do. But I'm really happy to hear that. It's good to know that the coaches and general managers want me to play here."

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