CALGARY, AB -- Two years ago, Calgary Flames general manager Jay Feaster felt pivot Mikael Backlund was on the cusp of becoming the team's top line centre.
He had ended the 2010-11 campaign on a positive note, posting four points in his final three games, and turned in a solid performance for Sweden at the 2011 World Championships. Backlund exuded confidence and looked poised to take a step forward in his career.
And then injury struck.
"Going into that season, into that training camp, that was challenge we put out to him - be a top-six guy. Be a first line centre," Feaster told CalgaryFlames.com. "I really thought that was going to be the springboard.
"And then he came into camp and he got hurt. He broke his pinky finger. I really thought the injury put him behind again."
Backlund was sidelined by the malady until Nov. 11, 2011 and it appeared he had lost the confidence had come into camp with. He didn't record his first point until his eighth game of the campaign and ended up with just 4 goals and 11 points in 41 games that season, which was a contract year.
The Flames had a decision to make; sign the centre to a multi-year deal, hoping that the 2011-12 season was an anomaly, or offer Backlund a short-term contract. The two sides came to an agreement: a one-year, show-us-what-you're-made-of pact that sent out a challenge to the young forward: take that next step and become a top-six player.
Backlund responded definitively. He scored 8 goals and 16 points in 32 games last year and looked much more self-assured on the ice. He also took on a leadership role within the locker room, helping rookies like Sven Baertschi get their barrings in the NHL.
That progression earned Backlund a two-year deal this summer and Feaster believes the 24-year-old is in the perfect position to challenge for, and potentially win, that top line centre spot.
"The confidence that he gained last year, he has a couple year contract now, he knows he's part of the plan. Now it's about, 'Don't just establish yourself as a regular in the league. Now start establishing yourself as a go-to guy. Try to be that top line centre.'"
"He knows it's an open situation."
The first step to moving into that spot is proving himself in training camp. Head coach Bob Hartley has expressed to every player in camp that each roster spot will be earned, not given. It doesn't matter if you're an NHL veteran or a fresh-faced rookie with no experience in The Show. You have to prove your worth, giving 100 per-cent in practices, intra-squad scrimmages and exhibition games.
"I'm excited about it," Backlund said. "There's a big opportunity for me to take on a big role with the team and be a big part of it. I'm looking forward to it and I'm trying to show off here right away - play good and help the younger guys too."
Thanks to his play last year and his new contract, the confidence the Vasteras, SWE native showed a couple of years is back. He believes he's capable of taking over as the team's number-one centre and understands the challenges that come with that role.
"I'm ready to take that next step," he stated. "I'm excited to go for it."
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