CALGARY – Mikael Backlund is what one could call a seasoned rookie.
Backlund has 24 NHL games under his belt and also played in this year’s world hockey championship. Yet the 21-year-old Swede opened his third rookie camp with the Calgary Flames on Friday.
Backlund, drafted 24th overall by the Flames in 2007, is the club’s top prospect. The Flames expect the young centre to graduate from prospect to fixture in the lineup when their season opens Oct. 7 in Edmonton. Not doing so would signal a step back in his development.
While several Flames veterans were loosening their legs playing pickup hockey Friday in preparation for the start of main camp Sept. 17, Backlund was straining his lungs and legs in fitness testing with other Flames freshmen at the University of Calgary.
While struggling to catch his breath, he maintained his enthusiasm for yet another rookie camp. One reason for that is the Flames are one of five NHL teams participating in a rookie tournament starting Sunday in Penticton, B.C.
“I want to play those games to get ready,” Backlund said between coughs. “Those games, I’m going to take advantage of them and get a good feel before the big games.”
The Edmonton Oilers, Vancouver Canucks, Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks are also sending their rookies to Penticton. The tournament opens with Vancouver versus Edmonton, followed by Anaheim and San Jose on Sunday.
Calgary versus Vancouver closes the five-day event Thursday.
The Oilers are the team to watch because they’re bringing a combination of Taylor Hall, the No. 1 draft pick this year, plus first-rounders Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson.
The Canucks announced Friday forward Cody Hodgson, their first-round pick in 2008, won’t participate in Penticton. He has yet to be cleared to play because of a back injury.
Backlund was called up from the American Hockey League’s Abbotsford Heat on Jan. 26 and finished out the season with the parent club. The six-foot, 200-pound centre from Vasteras, Sweden, had a goal and nine assists in 23 games.
Backlund had appeared in one NHL game the previous season, while en route from the world junior hockey championship in Ottawa to the Western Hockey League’s Kelowna Rockets.
His performance last season earned favourable reviews from Flames head coach Brent Sutter and was one of the few highlights in a season in which Calgary missed the playoffs. Backlund isn’t a remarkable skater, but his hockey sense and soft hands are what distinguish him.
“The mindset, the mental part of the game as far as thinking the game and knowing the game he understands very well,” Sutter said Friday. “He played well for us.
“Because he has the understanding and knows the game, it’s just a matter of getting stronger and quicker. Everything else will fall into place.”
Backlund says he worked hard this summer with trainer Mats Emanuelsson, who also trains Vancouver twin brothers Henrik and Daniel Sedin. With his experience, Backlund should stand out in Penticton even against Hall and company.
“The experience he had with us last year and in the American Hockey League, he should be a player that goes there and should be a leader on that team,” said Sutter. “If you look on the experience that he had last year, he should be a player that would step up.
“He needs to continue to push to be able to play on our team. We’re hoping he has a good training camp, good exhibition series so he can prove he is worthy of it.”
Backlund is determined to make the opening-day roster for the first time. After living out of a suitcase and a Calgary hotel room for much of last season, he declared he would be the happiest man in the world if Flames management told him to find a place to live.
“I’m real confident,” Backlund said. “After being up for awhile last year, almost half a season, of course I feel confident going into this camp and going into the big camp because I have experience, I know how good the NHL is and I know I can be a good player there.”
The Flames have room for Backlund at centre. Olli Jokinen is expected to start on Calgary’s No. 1 line with captain Jarome Iginla and Alex Tanguay. Daymond Langkow’s return from a neck injury last season has been slow, which leaves Backlund and Matt Stajan vying for second-line centre when the season starts.
“I’m not looking at it like he has to be a top-two centreman to play on our hockey team regularly,” Sutter cautioned. “I don’t think anybody in the organization is looking at it like that.
“We’re looking at it as, can he be one of our 12 or 13 forwards?”
Backlund has history with all three of the Oilers’ new prospects. His Rockets lost to Hall’s Windsor Spitfires in the final of the 2009 Memorial Cup. Backlund played for Swedish teams that lost to Eberle and the Canadians in back-to-back world junior championship finals.
Paajarvi-Svensson was Backlund’s teammate on those Swedish junior teams and assisted on Backlund’s overtime goal against Russia that propelled Sweden into the 2008 final.
Backlund wasn’t buying the hype around the Oiler three.
“I don’t really care,” he shrugged. “It’s going to be fun to play against Maagnus. Edmonton and Calgary is always a big battle.”