The Clock Is Ticking For Mikael Backlund

For the first month of the season, many around the Calgary Flames probably had a similar thought. While traditional possession giants T.J. Brodie and Mark Giordano continued their strong Corsi work unabated as the new season began – and Paul Byron began to prove that his strong work when he was healthy late last season probably was an indicator of future work – one of the usual suspects was conspicuous by his absence.

The common thought? “What the heck is up with Mikael Backlund?”

Trying to shake off an abdominal injury during the pre-season, Backlund was handled strategically throughout the first bit of the regular season. Easier zone starts (Stajan was buried in the defensive zone). Easier competition (Monahan ate the tough minutes). More high ground that he was used to traditionally. Maintenance days off the practice ice as often as necessary to keep him fresh as he worked through the injury.

But Plan A didn’t work, so now Plan B – parking him on the injured reserve for a while to see if he recovers – is being implemented. (And hopefully they don’t have to resort to the theoretical Plan C – surgery – as that would cost #11 even more game time.)

It’s the latest in a series of injuries for Backlund that have limited his playing time, interrupted his seasons and halted his organizational momentum since he became a full-time NHLer three years ago.

  • 2011-12: played 41 of 82 games (missed time due to a broken finger in training camp and an arm injury mid-season)
  • 2012-13: played 32 of 48 games (missed time due to a knee injury and a broken foot, which also cost him time at the World Championship)
  • 2013-14: played 76 of 82 games (missed time due to a hand injury)

It’s never the same thing, but it’s always something.

And that’s a factor that’s dogged Backlund throughout his pro career. After his entry-level deal, he’d established himself as a strong two-way player and a guy that could be relied upon for the tough minutes and (especially more recently) some key goals.

So why have his post-entry-level contracts been a 1-year/$725,000 deal and a 2-year/$1.5 million deal?

Because the team is probably looking at his numbers and thinking two things.

  1. “Sample size! He needs to do it for a full season or two for us to believe this is his actual level of play.”

  2. “We have to keep some cap space handy to sign or acquire a replacement for him down the stretch when he inevitably gets injured.”

What worries me is the second party, because nowadays the Calgary Flames actually have some internal center depth. It’s no longer just Backlund and the Roman Cervenkas and converted wingers of the world.

Nope.

Sean Monahan is an NHL center and is improving. Matt Stajan is the de facto elder statesman of the group, and his contract probably sees him move down the depth chart during his tenure, but he’s a nice safety valve for the young kids. Sam Bennett is probably in the NHL next season – and may have been in the NHL as we speak if not for his bum shoulder. Markus Granlund is a guy pushing for an NHL job. And Bill Arnold, Corban Knight and utility man Max Reinhart are all pressing for jobs.

What do these names (other than Stajan) have in common? They’re all younger than Backlund. They’re all going to be on either their entry-level or bridge deals in the next few years (and will all probably be about as cheap as Backlund cap-wise).

And if one or two of them can establish themselves as some combination of (a) as useful as Backlund to the coaches or (b) healthier than Backlund, they may find themselves supplanting Backlund in short order.

I like Mikael Backlund. He’s a good interview. He does a lot of community work and clearly loves this city and being a Calgary Flame. And he’s a very good hockey player when he’s healthy enough to string some games together and build up his confidence.

But for a rebuilding team, players aren’t people – they’re assets. And to progress through a rebuild, you need reliable assets that you can build around. And if you have an asset that’s unavailable to you for a third or even a half of every season, that’s not an asset you can really carry forward long-term.

I hope Mikael Backlund licks this injury quickly and can return to the Flames line-up at 100%. As a pending restricted free agent – and somebody his general manager is likely still evaluating as an asset – his job may very well depend on it.

  • Cool Story, Brodie!!!

    I dunno, but I feel like in this league fortune favours the bold. We’ve got some serious talent coming up in the centre position so maybe moving Backlund (as heartbreaking as that would be) would help this team in a major way.
    Be it with an extra first rounder ( right handed right winger, right handed D) or a more established prospect I could really see a prudent trade accelerating this rebuild.
    Don’t get me wrong, I frieakin love Backlund, but I think we’d be ok without him and I’d have peace of mind knowing we were patching up some areas of (desperate) need moving forward.

  • MonsterPod

    It’s always fun to have a discussion, but the reality is that it’s early in the season and the guy needs to heal.

    How he plays when he gets healthy and gets back will determine what kind of a deal he gets. We’ll certainly revisit all of this in March.

    • Cool Story, Brodie!!!

      Very true, I’m just spitballin here. Just seems to me that when you’ve got depth in one position, you use that to shore up avenues in another. We’ve just had this history of letting players value drop before getting a decent return ( or losing them for nothing) from teams that are already drafting in the 20 to 30 range anyway. I’d love to see what BT could get us from a high drafting team with players that still had some upside that benefit everyone involved. Then if both of us tank we get 2 high first rounders and if we keep kickin @ss like we have been without him anyways it’s win/win. Pie in the sky thinking I know but damn I just want us to get to that next level so bad…..

  • Cool Story, Brodie!!!

    Get him healthy and playing well, then trade him.
    He gives you enough to keep wanting more. If injuries did not follow him around I would keep him in heart beat. Sorry he has the bug!

  • The Last Big Bear

    For Pete’s sake, centre ice is a position of potential strength for the Flames, in the future. Probably.

    But right now, in a perfect world and a cup-contending roster, there’s not one Flames centre who would be playing above the 3rd line.

    Don’t trade away your eggs until at least one of them has hatched, and you actually have a chicken.

      • RedMan

        Absolutely agree! Why is this thread even on FN ? Must be slow news day for Ryan. Return of Porier, play of JJ, Sven’s future, Johnny G., Wideman’s great play, etc many more Flames potential threads then “making up news”.

  • MonsterPod

    I think Backlund is fairly similar to Alexandre Steen. They have similar numbers, similar amount of games played per season, defensive forwards, etc. Do you think Toronto was better off trading Steen when he was 24?

    • prendrefeu

      Hi “Walter White,”

      Serious question, or suggestion here, and I’m not trolling you at all. I’m simply asking this because I genuinely care about other people’s mental health:

      Have you considered seeking help, perhaps in the form of a therapist or counselor? Do you have that option available to you?

      Have others suggested you speak to a therapist or mental health practitioner?

      Again, I’m not trolling or trying to egg you on to some reply that will inflame the situation, I have genuine concern about your stability and mental health and I believe that it would be in your best interest, and the best interest of those in your life, that you find help and guidance with a qualified mental health professional.

  • prendrefeu

    @Walter white

    Hey WW, I have this strange feeling that you use to go by the name Ring a ding dong dandy on the flames message board before being given the boot for trolling your opinion on everyone. Lol

  • Finally…someone writes this piece!! I’ve been saying it even before my self imposed banishment. Backlund needs to be moved…the more time goes by the less value he has. The guy in reality is a 3rd line center. Its optimistic to say the least that we strongly consider him a 2nd line center. The window is closing on getting a decent return for him. Depreciating asset and the injuries don’t help.