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Backlund a 'great 18-year-old' player

Monday, 07.01.2008 / 6:11 PM / Features
By Mike Board  - CF.com Digital Content Director
Calgary general manager Darryl Sutter travelled to the Czech Republic to take in the World Junior Championship and very much liked what he saw from two Calgary prospects.

Both Mikael Backlund, the Flames first round pick last June, and Jusso Puustinen, a fifth round pick in 2006, put the puck in the net for their respective teams.

Backlund was one of the major reasons Sweden emerged as a powerhouse and helped force overtime in the gold medal game against Canada while Puustinen, who plays for the Kamloops Blazers in the WHL, had four goals and one assist for Finland in six games in the tournament.

"Great 18-year-old. I'll tell you that." said Sutter of Backlund, chosen 24th overall. "One of the best 18-year-olds in the tournament. He is going to be a really, really good hockey player."

In the round robin portion of the tournament it was Backlund who made a terrific pass to free up a teammate for the go-ahead goal with just seconds remaining in the game to give Sweden a win over Canada.

While Canada got revenge by winning 3-2 in overtime in the gold medal game, Backlund was the best Swedish forward on the ice.

"He was the best player against Canada, clearly," said Sutter. "He was their player of the game. He can make plays that very few 18-year-olds in the world can make."

Now that's high praise from anybody. But it is even more significant coming from Sutter, not one known for dishing out compliments on a regular basis.

For comparison, Sutter used Canada's Kyle Turris, a first round pick of the Phoenix Coyotes.

"As offensive players, they were clearly the two best 18-year-old centres in the tournament," said Sutter.

Mikael Backlund
Backlund is playing in the Swedish Elite League with men. His rights in the WHL are held by the Kelowna Rockets. The Swedish hockey mentality has moved towards more of a North American style of game, one reason for the Swedes to have done so well in the tournament.

"You can play a North American style when you have really good players and you work hard," said Sutter.

He is not overly concerned about rushing Backlund over the ocean to play right now, noting his teammate, Patrick Berglund, is 19, playing in Sweden and doing just fine in his development.

In fact, Backlund and Berglund had the exact same numbers for the tournament -- three goals and four assists in six games.

"Looking at him at this stage, we are very happy," said Sutter of Backlund's development.

And if he were to come and play in the WHL?

"He'd win the scoring title," smiled Sutter."When he is ready to come over here, he is going to be a good player. If he was playing in a different country, I would have stronger feelings about where he should be playing."

Puustinen is in his second season in the WHL.

"He was a good 19-year-old," assessed Sutter of Puustinen. "He has the ability to be an offensive player in this league. He plays a North American style and I think he will continue to improve."

Puustinen has 12 goals and 24 points in 32 games with the Blazers this season.