Friday, April 08, 2016

Scorching-Hot Mikael Backlund Says Don't Pigeonhole Him as a Third Line Centre

With the presence of high draft picks Sean Monahan and Sam Bennett, everyone seemingly projects Mikael Backlund as the Flames third line center. Everyone except Backlund, that is.

Whenever fans and media try to label him as a defensive player, as a so-called 'shutdown' centre, Backlund has always stubbornly rebuffed those attempts to pigeonhole him.

The 27-year-old Swede sees his role as bigger than that. Highly regarded for a long time by the advanced stats pundits for his ability to drive possession, Backlund thinks he can be a guy saddled with more offensive responsibility, who can be counted on to score goals.

"That's the way I think of myself and what I believe," re-stated Backlund on Thursday, after picking up his first career hat-trick in Calgary's 7-3 rout of the listless Vancouver Canucks (see my game story for The Canadian Press.).

There's little doubt that belief in himself that Backlund has always had, is starting to permeate through others too given his production over the last couple months.

Operating at a staggering 40-goal pace since the NHL's all-star break, Backlund has been on an absolute tear and is hoping the finish to this year -- now sitting at a career-best 21 goals -- will carry over into 2016-17.

"Next year, I just have to go out and play my game, trust myself, and believe that I can be an offensive player and not just solid defensively."

How Backlund Caught Fire

The hot streak for the 2007 first round pick began two months ago, ignited by an empty net goal of all things.

The date was Saturday, February 6 and the Flames opponent that night was also the Canucks. Only this time it was at Rogers Arena in Vancouver. It was game No. 51 for Calgary and Backlund entered the game with just five goals on the season.

Late in the game with the Flames leading 2-0, Vancouver pulled their goalie but Backlund snuffed out any Canucks comeback hopes with an unassisted goal at 17:45. But this one wasn't a lob from centre ice, it was the by-product of a gritty individual effort. First he pressured Linden Vey into mishandling the puck and making a poor pass to Dan Hamhuis. Than like an angry hornet, he buzzed in on Hamhuis and caused him to cough up the puck. After corralling the puck deep in the Canucks corner, he whipped a shot into the net from a near-impossible angle.

It was a significant goal for Backlund, who had gone 12 games without one and had just one in his previous 23.

He kept it going the next game scoring at home against the Leafs. Then on the first game of a two-game road trip, he made it goals in three straight games with a goal against the San Jose Sharks.

Father Knows Best

On that trip, his Dad told him something he wouldn't believe, but should have.

"My Dad told me on the Fathers trip in February that I'm going to get 20 this year and I just laughed at him. I guess he was right," said Backlund.

In reaching that milestone, which he said meant more to him than recording his first hat-trick, he has been one of the most productive players in the NHL over the last 60 days with 16 goals in 31 games. Going back to Feb. 6 (see below), only three players have scored more goals -- Filip Forsberg, Alex Ovechkin and Mark Scheifele. That's a pretty impressive run.

"Backs has been in the last month, one of our most consistent players," said coach Bob Hartley. "Great that he's getting rewarded for his efforts. Scores timely goals, whether it's powerplay, penalty killing, five-on-five. He's doing very well for us."

Backlund has always thought he could put up points. But he admits sometimes his confidence has wavered.

"Maybe that was the problem early in the year, I wasn't believing in myself as much I've done later in the year," Backlund said. "For every month that's gone by, I just believe in myself more."

Hartley has seen that too but he says it's natural with hockey players.

"Sometimes it's all about confidence. The beauty of hockey is you're dealing with human beings. We're not machines," the Flames coach said. "At this level, consistency is the key."

Striving for More Consistency

Backlund, who has six goals in his last three games, admits he's been a streaky scorer over the years and he'd like to become more consistent.

"Before these last three games, I went eight games without a point. This is how it goes sometimes. Sometimes you're really hot," says Backlund. "Especially for me, it seems like it goes like that. I'm trying to be consistent point-wise too so hopefully next year."

In his time in Calgary, Hartley says he has seen the evolution in Backlund both on and off the ice.

"He's matured a lot off the ice over our time together and on the ice, his game has grown a lot."

Patience is another factor, says Backlund.

"Being a little more poised with the puck," he says. "Around the net, I feel like offensively I've been more patient."

Still Plenty More Potential

The exciting thing for Flames fans is Hartley doesn't think he's done improving either, that's there's still more there.

"Backs has quite a bit of experience now, even though he's still a young centreman. He's played in many situations. He's grown very well in the organization and I think there's still lots of upside."

It does make you wonder if next October, if the off-season winger recruitment drive isn't as successful as the team hopes, if Bennett doesn't end up back on left wing again. Re-united with Backlund, perhaps?

It certainly would strengthen the top six and second line centre would be the proper usage of Backlund the way he's rolling right now. Heck, there's even a temptation to refer to him as the '1b' at that position.

By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Go there and do so now. It's just another way to be alerted to new Calgary Flames articles that I've written.


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    1 comment:

    1. Darren,

      The Flames have a dearth of centres. What do you think of Backlund and our first to move up this draft?