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After banner campaign last season, Backlund still hungry to improve and push himself to be better

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames /

A growing dependence on his expanding contribution.

A first, intoxicating foray into major trophy discussion.

More goals, more points, more responsibility.

Finding comfort and strength in on-ice sidekicks and an off-ice soul-mate.

"I feel,'' announces Mikael Backlund, "great.

"Our team's in great shape.

"This is the most excited I've ever been coming into a camp. The most comfortable I've ever been coming into a camp.

"But I know I've still got to push. You can never get too comfortable."

After fiddling with his professional GPS a couple of times over the years, running into frustrating dead ends or wrong turns, the 28-year-old Swede has finally arrived safely at his destination.

Yes, being Mikael Backlund is pretty sweet just about now.

As the middle letter on the 3M Line alongside Matthew Tkachuk and Michael Frolik, entrusted with muffling the most high-voltage centres in the game, the Connors and Sids and Ryans and Tylers and Jonathans, Backlund found his true calling last season.

Frolik's consummate professionalism, Tkachuck's combination of youthful verve and abrasiveness married to his solid two-way game, formed the Flames' most consistent line.

"I can't say enough about Chucky and Fro,'' Backlund praises. "Those guys helped me so much. It's hard to say why a line clicks. But we just seemed to hit it off."

So for probably the first time since turning pro, he could truly enjoy a summer, secure 

"What I've learned over the years, as I get older, is how important it is to recharge. 

"To step back.

"To breathe a little bit.

"When I was younger it was harder for me to take time off in the summer. There was more internal stress.

"Sometimes I worked too hard. Still do, I guess. I'm a bit stubborn that way. Just go, go, go. And then my body breaks down a little bit.

"Still learning. But I'm finding a better balance.

"You still do your training, still put in the work, but it's good to give yourself a break. Helps the body. Helps the mind.

"We play a lot of games. It's a long season.

"I've learned its okay to take time off. It's actually beneficial."

Video: Mikael Backlund's best plays from the 2016-17 season

The benefits this off-season included a short trek through northern Italy. He and fiancée Frida began in Venezia, then travelled to Conegliano, famous for its Prosecco production. Down The Boot a ways to Valpolicella and a wine tour of a somewhat less sparkling variety and finally west to the idyllic, picture-postcard-pretty shores of Lake Garda.

The wedding of his sister Malin in Falkenberg, on the mouth of the Atran River in western Sweden, though, topped the off-season highlight reel.

"Best day of the summer,'' says Backlund. "Hands down. An emotional day for me. Not only is she my sister, she's one of my best friends.

"My fiancée Frida and I MCed the wedding. We really enjoyed it. We got pretty good reviews, too, a lot of compliments.

"Hard to describe but the whole weekend was just great."

Backlund should be getting used to good reviews and a lot of compliments these days.

Never before has he begun a September here in such a position of solidity, of trust.

His elevation into the Selke Trophy conversation last season marked a turning point in his career: he finally sorted out his playing identity.

No, Backlund didn't crack the Top-3 finalists list as the NHL's top defensive forward but the Selke is notoriously known as a chunk of hardware based on accumulative recognition. Now that he's joined the conversation, he'll remain in it, as long as the standard continues to be high.

"It seems,'' agreed winger Kris Versteeg a few months ago, when Backlund's name first surfaced in connection with the Selke, "you've got to get in there first. Get your foot in the door, get recognized. Be up for it two or three years before you actually win."

If so, only 28, there's ample time.

Because if 2015-2016 proved to be a season of growing awareness in him, the season just passed could be best described as one of epiphany.

Personally and professionally in a very good place, Backlund aims to build on the foundation laid last year.

"Obviously when you have some success, you develop chemistry with the guys on your line, things seem to get easier. It was good, yeah, but I want to get better as a player. That's the whole point.

"I feel confident in myself. I feel confident in this group.

"I feel good having the same coaching staff. They worked well with us last year.

"We've taken some big steps this summer. We haven't added too many guys but we added some necessary pieces.

"That's the best part: feeling we have the chance to do something really good here."

Anticipation for the season is high hereabouts. And No. 11, the middle letter of the 3M Line, is a large part of that.

Able to step back, to re-charge and breathe a bit in the summer, this September brings a confident Mikael Backlund. An ambitious Mikael Backlund. 

A comfortable Mikael Backlund.

Just not too comfortable.

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