Once the young promising centre in the organization, 2007 first-rounder finds himself stuck on the fourth line
Imagine awaking one day, flipping on the goggle box and learning that you’re on sale on the NHL’s in-house Home Shopping Channel.
“You can’t help but wonder ‘What if it happens? What do I do with my place?’ ” concedes Mikael Backlund. “Things like that are going through my head a little bit. It’s only human nature, I guess. I’ve tried not to think too much about it since I heard the rumours. Played the game Friday. Came to work and practised hard Saturday and today.
“When I get on the ice, I’m trying to do my best. Trying to have fun. Trying to make the best of the situation. Trying to make plays even though I’m on the fourth line.”
Still, at odd, quiet moments of introspection/reflection, he must wonder if he hasn’t somehow been whisked back in time to 1929.
The market’s crashed. His stock’s bottomed out. Once so rich in promise, so flush with opportunity, only to find himself now, jarringly, starting from scratch; all the collateral he’d built up, vanished.
Pipped, not so terribly long ago, as the No. 1 centre of the future in this organization, if only by process of elimination, a natural fit between Jarome Iginla and Alex Tanguay, Backlund has watched his status whittled away by a 19-year-old rookie whiz kid, a resurrected 29-year-old playmaker and a hometown Toronto Maple Leaf minor-league cast-off.
Iginla and Tanguay are, of course, both long gone. And if the rumours that began swirling late last week are true, Backlund just might be, too.
A revitalized Matt Stajan has nailed down the spot on the No. 1 line. Sean Monahan has played beyond his years and Joe Colborne’s won organizational hearts with his size and potential.
All of which has left Backlund adrift, consigned to the checking line, wondering where he fits in, if he’ll ever get to deliver the goods.
“Stajan, with the way that he has played for us, has made it pretty clear for us that he’s the No. 1 centre,” explains coach Bob Hartley, following Monday’s practice at WinSport. “But from there, on any given night . . . as we saw in the game in Colorado, Backs put us back in the game when I put him with Hudler and Cammalleri.
“Obviously, there are four chairs. Right now, Stajan has the big chair. Monny, with his goal production, has the second one. Colborne, with his progression, has the third one. But we’re looking at this every game, every shift, and re-evaluating. Plus, I’m telling Backs this: I understand that being on the fourth line, I cannot expect him to move up by scoring goals.
“What’s mind-boggling is: Where has his offence gone? Again, I’m not talking about recent weeks. Before that. You often hear coaches going on about playing without the puck, how guys have to be better in their own end. Backs is the total opposite.
“Backs has done so great defensively, but I felt early on that he had lost the desire to score goals. For me, playing good defence should help you score goals. You spend less time in your own zone, you create more turnovers. He has great vision, great hockey sense. But he was struggling in those areas.”