by Owen Newkirk || AHL On The Beat Archive
Adirondack Phantoms goaltender Johan Backlund does not fit the profile of an American Hockey League rookie getting his feet wet in the professional ranks for the first time.
He certainly does not play like a rookie on the ice either.
In fact, the 6-foot-2, 198-pound Backlund is not even close to being a rookie by AHL definitions.
Yet he has played fewer AHL games than all but four of the other players on Adirondack’s current 25-man roster and those four players all made their professional hockey debuts with the Phantoms this season.
Since turning 20 years old on July 24, 2001, the Skelleftea, Sweden, native had played in 293 career pro games, logging over 17,000 minutes in goal, making almost 7,000 saves and recording 31 shutouts, all in his home country. He also represented Sweden in the 2007 IIHF World Championships in Russia, winning four of his six starts, including two shutouts, and helping his country reach the semifinals.
In his eight years of playing in Sweden since his overage year (2001-02), Backlund has a 2.48 career goals-against average and a .907 save percentage.
Clearly not rookie credentials.
So why all of a sudden did this 28-year-old goaltender consider uprooting his entire hockey playing life to test the unfamiliar, and very unforgiving, waters in North America?
“It was the dream of playing in the NHL,” said Backlund. “I didn’t know if I would get the chance because I was starting to get old in hockey years.”
He had proven himself a very capable net minder over five seasons in the Swedish Elite, widely considered one of the best European leagues. But when the Philadelphia Flyers came calling in March, the allure of reaching the NHL and proving himself against the world’s best was all he needed to hear to take the plug into uncharted territory.
“I was thrilled when they wanted to sign me,” Backlund stated, “and I wanted to take the chance to see if I could play over here.”
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Flyers goaltending coach Jeff Reese is another new piece of the Philadelphia organization, but quickly saw why the NHL club was so keen on taking a chance with 28-year-old “rookie.”
“Backlund is an older guy, but very polished and can certainly be very successful at this level,” said Reese. “However, his goal is to get up to Philly. We’re working on a few things right now because it’s a big adjustment for him. It’s a different game, different sized rink, more traffic and guys shoot from everywhere, so Adirondack is a good place for him to begin. Johan has gotten off to a good start though, he’s been very solid and we’re looking for big things from him.”
It has indeed been a good initiation for Backlund. He won his first ever AHL start, beating Albany in a preseason game 2-1 in a shootout on Sept. 25, where he dazzled the Glens Falls Civic Center crowd by stopping all four River Rats shootout attempts.
An injury to Flyers backup Brian Boucher postponed Backlund’s regular-season Phantoms debut until Oct. 9, but he won that too, making 26 saves in a 4-3 win over Springfield.
“I talked with lots of guys before I came here and they all said the same thing: that it would be a big transition,” said Backlund. “It’s been a huge difference. With angles it’s different on the smaller rinks, the shooters have some better scoring positions so it takes some time to get used to, but I’m slowly feeling better and better about it.”
Perhaps his best two performances so far came last weekend when he faced Hershey and Albany on consecutive nights. On Oct. 16 the Swede was outstanding against the defending Calder Cup champions, stopping 26 of 27 shots in the game and shrugging off five Bears power plays to lead Adirondack to a 2-1 win.
The next night in front of a standing-room-only crowd in Glens Falls he held a talented River Rats offense to just one goal in regulation as the Phantoms rallied to force overtime in a 2-1 loss to Albany.
When asked if his focus while playing for the Phantoms was to prove himself to the Flyers, he quickly shook his head and directed the attention inwardly.
“No it’s more for me to prove to myself that I can play here,” said Backlund. “I also want to show the Flyers that they made the right decision by signing me, but mostly it’s to show myself that I can handle this level.”
It is clear that Backlund has not required much time to make an impression in a new hemisphere, a fact that has not been lost on Adirondack head coach Greg Gilbert.
“He’s a pretty composed and pretty efficient goaltender,” said Gilbert. “He’s done a really good job at getting square to the shots. I think he has to continue to get acclimated to the North American game with the amount of net-crashing and guys going to the crease and rebound situations that are going to take place. Obviously the ice is smaller here, so things are going to happen faster and there’s going to be more shots and lots of crowds around that blue paint. He’s done a great job so far and he’s only going to get better.”
Reese conveyed a similar evaluation towards Backlund, stressing that he should become a little more aggressive in the net, not sit deeper in the goal like so many European goaltenders accustomed to waiting out the pass-first mentality commonly found overseas. The Flyers’ goalie coach knows from experience that here in North America players are urged to shoot from every angle and crash the net, something both he and Gilbert feel that Backlund will adapt to quickly, due to his experience.
“His strengths are the way he moves, the way he recovers; down low he’s very good,” said Reese. “In and around the net he’s very good, he’s a competitor. He came into camp in terrific shape and he wants to take the next step.”
“You’re looking for people that are going to contribute to the organization and push people to be better and Johan is one of those guys,” said Gilbert. “He’s getting good work, great exposure in game experience and he’s getting fantastic direction from Jeff Reese.”
Adirondack captain Jared Ross has played in front of some talented goaltenders during his Phantoms career, the likes of Brian Boucher, Scott Munroe, Michael Leighton and Jean-Sebastien Aubin. Ross stressed just how important it is to a team to have a goalie they can feel confident about when he’s in the net, a confidence Ross insisted the Phantoms feel when both Backlund and rookie Nic Riopel stand between the pipes.
“We’re pretty confident knowing he’s back there,” said Ross. “So far in the games that he has played he’s shown a lot of confidence and he always remains calm. Game after game he has made big saves for us late in the game to keep us in it or to keep the lead. Both he and Riopel allow us to take some risks and try some things, knowing that they are back there and there’s a good chance they’ll make the stop.”
Making the transition to the AHL or the NHL is challenging enough for players, but then add on top of that the need to learn a new language, acclimate to a new culture and adjust to different cuisine and it could easily pile up to be an overwhelming mission. Yet with all this change, the Phantoms back stop has dug his feet in and found a comfortable groove in the Adirondacks.
“There have been many new things to learn,” said Backlund. “But it’s been great so far. I like it here.”