CALGARY - Calgary Flames head coach Bob Hartley says he's sleeping easier where Mikael Backlund is concerned.
When an NHL coach candidly tells reporters "I'm worried," which is what Hartley said earlier in training camp about Backlund, antennas go up.
An abdominal injury has kept Backlund out of all of Calgary's pre-season games so far, including Thursday's game at home against the Winnipeg Jets. It's doubtful the 25-year-old Swede will play in Calgary's final exhibition game Saturday in Winnipeg.
Backlund was Calgary's first-line centre for much of last season. A team that must squeeze every last goal out of its roster in 2014-15 will need all hands on deck when the Flames open the season Wednesday at home against the Vancouver Canucks.
Backlund stopped skating and dryland training for a few days during camp, but has returned to the ice and the gym. Hartley was feeling more encouraged about Backlund than he was a week ago.
"When you have a guy in the gym or in the medical room and his injury seems to be stalled and not moving forward, you always get worried," Hartley said Thursday. "Backs has the OK from the medical staff. He feels better. This morning he was flying on the ice.
"Now he's back in the gym, he's on the ice, so now we're re-starting him. I'm delighted now."
Backlund arrived at Flames training camp feeling sore from off-season training in Sweden. The six-foot, 198-pound forward became uneasy about the possibility the injury required surgery.
"It didn't go away. It got worse," Backlund said. "A week ago, we weren't sure what was going to happen.
"I went to see the doctor and got good news and got some good treatment and that's why it's been turning around and feeling a lot better."
Backlund skated this week with other injured players, but is expected to participate in full practice Friday. Hartley hopes he'll be ready for the season-opener.
"Obviously I will wait for the green light from the doctors," Hartley said. "We're going to play Mikael Backlund when we feel he's 100 per cent on the medical side and hockey-wise.
"The good part is he knows our systems. It's not like we're putting him in Game 1 or Game 2 of the season and we're worried he's going to turn left when he's supposed to turn right."
Calgary's first-round pick (27th overall) in 2007 started slowly last season with two goals and six assists in his first 25 games. Backlund picked up the pace to finish with 18 goals and 21 assists in 79 games.
Backlund tied for third in the NHL in short-handed goals with four and averaged 18 and a half minutes ice time per game.
Backlund missed the final five games of the season with a thumb injury.
"I want to be better than last year, obviously, so higher than 39 (points). I'll say that out loud," he said. "My goal is to have a good 82, hopefully play 82 games, and be consistent all year and not have a start like I had last year.
"It's my goal to be a team leader the whole season."
He's in the final year of a two-year contract that pays him $1.5 million annually, according to Capgeek.com. Backlund will become a restricted free agent next summer unless the Flames sign him to an extension.
When Calgary's season concluded April 13, Backlund joined Sweden for the IIHF men's world hockey championship in Minsk, Belarus, in May.
He was named an assistant captain and contributed five goals and three assists in 10 games. Backlund scored one of those goals in the bronze-medal game, which Sweden won 3-0 over the Czech Republic.
Backlund had played for his country at the world championships in 2010 and 2011, but was given far more responsibility on and off the ice in Minsk.
"Especially to get a letter on my chest for the national team, I really proud of that," Backlund said. "It was a huge thing for me.
"It was the first time I was the top centre for the Swedish national team. I had been in juniors, but not with the national team. It was fun and a big honour and it was great for me developmentally to be a leader on the team."