Mikael Backlund knows the score.
The Calgary Flames' 2007 first-round draft choice may only be 23 years old, but after a disappointing 2010-11 season, he is well aware his game must go up a notch this coming season.
"If I don't have a good year this year, I might be back in Europe," Backlund said after re-signing with the club. "And I don't want to be there."
That possibly seems a little extreme regarding a player so young, but there's no doubt Backlund must take his game to a new level or he'll have a tough time being considered a sure-fire NHL player.
Going into last season, Backlund was penciled in to be the top-line center between Jarome Iginla and Alex Tanguay. His season was derailed by a broken finger just before the season started. After missing a spell due to the injury, which required surgery, he skated in 41 games before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury.
In those 41 games, Backlund collected just four goals and seven assists, nothing close to expectations.
However, the knock was how he didn't push to be a bigger part of the mix. Backlund has the skill to be second- or third-line center in the NHL, but now he must find the on-ice determination and mental strength to get the battles of a season.
The one-year contract worth $725,000, which was a pay cut, was proof it's time he prove himself.
"Mikael has an opportunity to step up and attempt to secure a top two-line center position," Flames general manager Jay Feaster said. "He is a very talented player who skates well, has excellent vision and possesses a strong skill set. As we have discussed with him, Mikael needs to work on his consistency and focus in order to break through in a top-six role and start to define his role on our team."