Imagine waking 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.”
Hartley lauds Backlund a “great young pro.” Admires the diligence he’s shown in setting about learning the roll-up-your-sleeves side of the game. Is impressed that there’s been no whining, no sulking, no pouting, at the 2007 first-rounder’s drastic u-turn in fortune.
The odd thing is, Stajan, with far more offensive opportunity, has only two more points than Backlund’s seven. Colborne’s hovering at seven, too.
“Hey, lots of guys extend their careers by many years doing what Back’s is doing right now,” argues Hartley. “Guy Carbonneau was a Quebec league scoring champion and he made a great NHL career as one of the best checkers, blocking shots and everything. It’s a choice, whether you make $65,000 in the ‘A’ or $700,000 in the NHL and at the same time it’s about playing the game the right way.
“If you score five to 10 goals a season, you can’t sit on this and say, ‘My job is safe.’ That’s what we’re trying to do with everyone. I’m trying to teach Monahan the right way to play the game on both sides of the puck in the three zones, even though, hey, this guy is going to score 30, 40 for us, for sure.
“The unfortunate part is that Backs got caught in a rebuilding year where we added two really good young centremen.”
Which leaves him in a decidedly tricky Catch-22 situation. Only increased offence can get him bumped up in the centre-ice pecking order. But stuck on the checking line, given limited minutes and no power play time, it’s almost impossible to do that.
This always loomed as a decisive moment in Mikael Backlund’s Calgary career, after six seasons of flirting, and failing, to carve out a niche. The seismic shift to a rebuild seemed to play in his favour. But it’s all played out wrong.
Demotion to that fourth chair Hartley spoke of. A healthy scratch one game. And now the inevitable trade gossip.
“On the fourth line you’re not supposed to be scored on, so that’s my job right now,” he says, fighting to remain positive. “I’m on the PK now, and I like that. It keeps me in the game. Obviously, it’s not my plan to be a fourth-line player. It’s a long year. I’m trying to stay patient and help the team.
“I can’t change my game too much. I did that earlier in my career in the NHL and that’s what’s hurting me a little bit now. I’m trying to find my way back again, being more offensive. That’s how I got into this league in the first place.
“Everybody knows I’m not happy where I am right now. That’s no secret. There’s no use lying about that. Everybody wants to play as much as possible. I want to help the team more than I do right now.