How long does Mikael Backlund have to go through this?

It happened again, just as it’s been happening throughout his career.

Mikael Backlund, one of the very few Flames first rounders of note, has already been banished to the fourth line. 

He started off the season with Lance Bouma and Michael Frolik, and they looked fine. In reality, Bob Hartley’s initial lines for the Flames looked fine, but they weren’t scoring right away, so the top line aside, everything was shaken up.

And part of that shakeup involved replacing Frolik with Brandon Bollig, and punting Backlund down the lineup.

Again.

Leaving behind the early days of 2013-14

The 2013-14 season wasn’t a particularly pleasant one. It was Bob Hartley’s second year as the Flames coach, but we all knew what we were getting into: a really, really bad team; one devoid of any true superstars and destined for a high draft pick.

There were three exceptions to that, though: Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie, and Backlund. Without them, the Flames were one of the worst teams in the league; with them, they suddenly became borderline elite.

This involved actually placing Backlund in a role of importance: not languishing on the fourth line.

The 2013-14 season started off poorly for Backlund. Well, not immediately – he was given legitimate, top six forward ice time for the first seven games or so, but his linemates fluctuated from Jiri Hudler to Curtis Glencross to T.J. Galiardi and even back to the old main staple of Bouma – but a few more games into the season, he was benched. In the 11th game of the season, a 5-2 win over the Capitals, he didn’t even play 10 minutes. And in the 12th game of the season, Backlund was a healthy scratch.

This was back in the days when the Flames were playing Joe Colborne as a centre, and Hartley had Colborne above Backlund in the lineup. When Backlund returned from his one-game pressbox stay, he was newly established as the fourth line centre, barely getting 10 minutes a night as the Flames continued to lose.

Then, suddenly, something happened. Backlund started getting more ice time. He started making more plays. He went on little point streaks. He got more ice time. And the kicker: he even got to wear an alternate’s ‘A’ for an extended stretch of time.

Media attributed this to Backlund’s newfound confidence, and I have no doubt this is true.

Only, how did Backlund get so confident, after spending roughly a dozen games – plus a healthy scratching – in a fourth line role?

Because Sean Monahan got hurt, and his injury forced Hartley to give Backlund, another centre, more minutes.

When Backlund was played like a valued member of the Flames, rather than a cast-aside scrub, he excelled. He rose to new personal heights, and made his team all the better along the way. It’s something that carried over through the 2014-15 season, as even through his injuries, Hartley stuck by him, and played him in his proper role. Backlund rewarded him with making the on-ice product all the better.

Or so we thought

The Flames, going into the 2015-16 season, looked poised to improve. Not to be one of the league’s best teams just yet, but at the very least, improved. A lot of that had to do with the great forward depth they possessed, and centre depth in particular.

Monahan and Sam Bennett are undoubtedly the Flames’ best hopes as top six centres. Monahan’s already there, and Bennett’s finding his way, particularly after a strong first postseason showing (in which, incredibly enough, he was centred by Backlund – who would have thought pairing good players together would work out?). So while Backlund may have been slated as a top six guy not too long ago, Bennett’s presence is the beginning of sliding him down.

And that’s fine, because having Backlund – an outstanding defensive centre who is starting to be counted on for half a point per game or so – as your third line centre is good depth. It’s probably an ideal role for him in the long term.

It is not a role being utilized.

Placing Backlund on the fourth line and once again dropping him under 10 minutes of ice time is not depth, though; it’s misuse, and something we already saw play out two years ago. Having Bollig on Backlund’s line isn’t a sign of depth, it’s a sign of gross misusage. And having Bollig play more than Backlund in a single game is ludicrous.

And yet, that’s exactly what has happened to start this season. We’re back to exactly where we were two years ago: a player who has long ago proven he is better than fourth line duty is stuck on the fourth line.

Where do we go from here?

Following the end of the 2014-15 season, Brad Treliving identified Backlund as a core player, and expressed high hopes for him for 2015-16. To that end, he re-signed Backlund to a three-year, $3.575 AAV contract: a firm vote of confidence in the player’s abilities and place on the team.

This does not fall in line with Backlund’s current role on the fourth line. Something is going to have to give.

Ideally, that something would be moving Backlund back up the lineup, and playing him with wingers who match his game. You don’t trust just anybody to introduce a fourth overall pick to the NHL, after all, but the last time we really saw the Flames, it was Backlund guiding Bennett, and forming an impressive tandem with him.

Which makes this extremely hasty bump down to the fourth line all the more confusing. What could have possibly happened to have shattered the faith and good will built up by a player over a season and a half’s worth of work? Why are we back to where we were two years ago? Why is a player in a situation he has time and time again proven he is firmly above?

It’s still early in the season yet, and entirely possible that next game, Backlund will move up in the lineup. But the fact we’re still left questioning just how and why he’s being used is troubling, and it’s not ideal. This wasn’t just punishment for a bad giveaway or a bad game. This is a trend forming early this season, as his ice time has dropped from 15:11 to 10:05 to 8:28 over the course of the first three games.

It’s frustrating to watch from the sidelines; I can’t imagine how frustrating it must be to actually happen to you. We’ve already been through this; now, here we go again.

  • loudogYYC

    Nothing to worry about. The Flames are still adjusting, figuring out their depth and most effective lines.

    If Bennett sticks as a 2C then it’ll be Stajan-Backlund shuffle for 4C. More than likely we’ll see a Bennett-Backlun-Frolik 2nd line with Stajan as 3C and Jooris or Granlund carrying Bollig on the 4th line.

  • Derbyherb

    Backlund looked awful in the pre-season and the regular season up to this point so this is the result. Your play tanks then Hartley reduces your minutes and he may scratch you. Ask Raymond, Bollig, Gaudreau, Wideman, Baertschi etc

    I also wonder if he’s still hurt. He had an injury in training camp and he doesn’t look himself.

  • ClayBort

    Bouma has 2.2M reasons to thank Backlund.

    Nobody should be shocked Backlund hasn’t looked good considering he’s been saddled with Bouma AND Bollig. Bouma-Backlund combo wasn’t so bad last year because the 3rd player on that line was usually more competent than Bouma, and Bouma was the benefactor of playing with the other two (not the other way around).

    This year, that third linemate has been Bollig, and Backlund has been asked to climb out of quicksand with a thousand pound dumbbell in each hand.

  • Johnny Goooooooaldreau

    Like I “paraphrased” Mike Cadarette’s thouhgts on T’Spoon in the Wotherspoon Blog…

    “Was it just the perception that Backs was the big kid in a shallow pool of forward depth? Was he really as good as you all thought? Did fans overrate him?

    Maybe, maybe, and maybe.

    One thing is for sure, however: Backlund is gripping the walls of that tube slide, but he’s slowly losing his spot to younger, better equipped players”

    It is a good thing when better players come along and take a middling players spot.

    It means we are improving.

    Yay!

  • Johnny Goooooooaldreau

    I’d play him with Bennett and Frolik. Some times guys need to work themselves out of funks. Stapling a guy to the fourth line is a great way to screw his confidence (Stajan under Brent Sutter in CGY). Whatever you may think of Backlund, he gives the Flames a better chance of creating offence than players like Bollig, Stajan, or Jones, and he’s also better defensively.

    I don’t think Backlund has been great over the first 3 games of the season, but I don’t think has game has been awful enough to warrant a fourth line job. The only forwards that are clicking right now are JG, Monahan, and Hudler. Everyone else deserves a resounding ‘meh’. I’m interested to see what lines Hartley rolls with against WPG, a team that plays a similar style to the Blues’.

    • everton fc

      Bennett/Backlund/Colborne played well vs. the Canucks in the playoffs…

      Frolik is certainly an improvement over Colborne…

      Still, Backlund’s looked poor, most of the season thus far.

  • Johnny Goooooooaldreau

    Backlund has not been good this season which included a poor camp. He needs to earn his ice based on whatever criteria the coach establishes for that player.

  • mattyc

    When I said the Flames would be best served by Backlund doing the ‘heavy lifting’, I assumed Hartley knew that meant the other team’s best players, not child actor Brandon Bollig.

  • jonahgo

    i’m curious to see if this becomes an issue between treliving and hartley… as ari mentions in the article, hartley’s usage of backlund seems totally at odds with what treliving said/did this offseason. if this team is really competing for a playoff spot, it doesn’t make sense to bury your best possession centre over a couple mistakes (and, apparently, a bad preseason?? i didn’t watch the preseason, so i can’t speak to this, but ummm… it’s preseason??).

  • First Name Unidentified

    The only thing I can say about Backlund bashers – you don’t understand Hockey!!

    He is easily one of the best forwards on the team and it’s frustrating to watch Hartley misusing him. I am a big Hartley fan but this puzzles me. Hopefully he can play with better linemates soon

  • ClayBort

    Makes me think coach of the year should’ve went to Gio, not Hartley. The guy just hates certain players, but has an undying love for the old school face punchers because no matter how bad Engelland or Bollig are, they get fit every break. Strange.

    • The problem with player selection, even in Hartley’s case is only one of several issues. Even if the player selection and line issue is resolved, we still have glaring issues with systems and usage.

      Even if we saw Backlund used with Bennett and Frolik, we still have the issues with suppression of zone entries against, legitimate shot attempt suppression, and determining the type of team this is. Are they a dump and chase/dump and recover team? Or are they a clean/carried in zone entry team?

      There is such disarray in this area, of determining actual identify of their systems which is put by the wayside of “the identity”.

      • Johnny Goooooooaldreau

        read and react, play what’s in front of you, make the simple play etc… sometimes you dump and chase, sometimes you carry it in… sometimes you shoot, sometimes you pass… It’s hockey, sometimes the right play is the wrong play, and sometimes the wrong play works out just fine.

        • mattyc

          read and react, play what’s in front of you, make the simple play etc… sometimes you dump and chase, sometimes you carry it in… sometimes you shoot, sometimes you pass… It’s hockey, sometimes the right play is the wrong play, and sometimes the wrong play works out just fine.

          hahahaha what does this even mean?!

          • Johnny Goooooooaldreau

            It means I long for the days before the left wing lock ruined hockey and other systems took over and made hockey boring to watch.

            If I wanted to watch a game full of robots coached to the Nth degree I’d watch the NFL.

            Peace, out.

          • ClayBort

            I think there are some misunderstandings of what a system actually does.

            It is not like football or a table hockey game where players are locked into a route. Really the system is just there to simplify decisions from many different options to a handful. The player then uses his brain to decide an optimal course of action. A quick player with a broad skill set, say Johnny Gaudreau is able to be more creative because he has the athleticism and skill set to execute many different options available to him in that situation. The system is less of a hindrance on him, and you see creativity.

            Deryk Engelland on the other hand will have a much more constrained decision, because his skill set puts bounds on what he can accomplish in any given situation. The system is drafted with this player in mind. The idea is that a system allows him to be competitive against better players, because most players are better. You do not want to see Deryk Engelland try to be creative.

            A good system always allows players to use all of their skill set, and finds ways for the fringe players to be competitive. The only players that should be locked on the boards are the Brandon Bollig’s of the world.

            Detroit’s 2-1-2 has been in use for years is tremendously entertaining, especially when their skill players create odd number situations below the goal line. Vancouver’s cycle with the Sedin’s can destroy you, and the Hawks break up the middle of the ice makes for some of the more entertaining games you’ll see.

            Systems fail when they clamp down a team’s best players. Brent Sutter failed as a coach in the NHL because he put the reigns on Bouwmeester, Giordano, and others far too tight. The ‘boring’ systems, with a few exceptions, tend to fail in today’s NHL they way hooking and holding is now penalized.

          • There are systems, albeit they’re not playing to the strengths of the team. Defensively, the system being used doesn’t get the most defensive impact out of the players.

            Structurally, the team needs to start their defense in the neutral zone. It needs to start there, it needs to be able to preventative in zone entries or at least force the situation into puck recovery in their own end if needed.

            Clog the neutral zone up with active sticks, sound positioning, and having your blueline be the demarcation of point.

            Offensively, it’s avoiding the wrong systems or elected decisions that may seem smart but aren’t:

            Example – Kris Russell’s blinding fast rush up the ice that often backfires.

            It’s delightful to watch, but we know that the ends don’t justify the means. Or the decision to have Hudler enter the zone and stop along the blueline for the pass to Monahan or Gaudreau.

            Both those examples may have worked before, but it’s just classic Hartley. Most teams are aware of it. It’s the same with the reliance of the stretch pass. It can work, but it often doesn’t.

            Smart first passes with support on the play up the ice are things that work, things that play to the strength of this team’s offensive abilities.

          • Hudler is not bound by any instruction that says he needs to stop as he enters the zone, he’s reading the play. The stretch pass may not work often but in today’s game, it must be a threat in order to open up some space or you won’t be able to make the crisp supported passes you speak of. They won’t have room. Russell rushing the puck and driving the defenders back with his skating ability may seem like a waste to you but again, it’s creating space and forcing defenders to adjust and make decisions rather than being able to step up, clog lanes, etc.

          • ClayBort

            Clyde you raise a good point

            We don’t like dump and chase, as we’ve repeatedly said. You don’t fix this by telling Brandon Bollig he’s not allowed to dump and chase anymore. The truth is he’s just not good enough to carry the puck in successfully often enough to be effective.

            You fix dump and chase by acquiring and playing players capable of carrying the puck. This means pushing bus drivers like Backlund up the depth chart, and keeping the Bouma’s of the world in your bottom 6.

          • Johnny Goooooooaldreau

            A team is made up of different parts. What is expected of 1 player can not be expected of another player who doesn’t have the same skill level, but there is no SOP for all hockey players. They are all different.

            What a genius you are telling us that we should only acquire players capable of carrying the puck.
            If only there were no salary cap, we could have tried to sign every free agent capable of carrying the puck, it would be nice to have a team of 4 first lines and 6 top 2 D and The best goalie in the world.

            Doesn’t work though, the best teams (sports or industry) have “Generals and Soldiers” we can’t all drive the bus.

            Even Team Canada had to quit just picking the scoring leaders and start building a team.

            Roles and expectations must be clearly defined or the team will break down.

          • ClayBort

            My point is you structure your lineup accordingly

            Ie. don’t waste a top 6 spot on a bottom 6 player (Bouma)

            I’m more than fine with Bouma and Stajan, if they play where it makes sense… ie. 3C and 4LW.

            Canada’s “team building” consists of bringing Bergeron, who is stil a 60-70 pt guy.

          • Johnny Goooooooaldreau

            My point is that Backs is a #3 Center on this team, so I am glad you agree.

            “Ie. don’t waste a top 6 spot on a bottom 6 player” (Backlund)

  • beloch

    #Flames lines in practice
    Gaudreau-Monahan-Hudler
    Bennett-Backlund-Ferland
    Jones-Stajan-Frolik
    Raymond-Jooris-Bollig

    Randy Sportak

    Looks like the Hartley and the fans are on the same page as far as Backlund is concerned. I suspect it’s because Bennett’s possession finally cratered against the Blues. In the first two games against the Canucks he was leading the team despite getting very unfavorable zone starts.

      • Johnny Goooooooaldreau

        I would take it a step further & put Backlund on the wing, Bennett at centre with Frolik. Try to kill 2 birds with 1 stone here by seeing if these guys can work some magic & get some consistent scoring & continue to give Bennett that centre ice. In the long haul, developing Bennett into a top 2 centre is more important than worrying about Backlund anchoring the 3rd line. We have lots of guys that can man that 3rd line centre position. Heck, put Granlund as the 3rd line centre.

        • Honestly Backlund on the wing is a weird theory that could work. I know there was chatter about it when referring to some time played with Berglund when in Sweden and when representing Sweden previously.

          It also worked well in both those cases, given the small sample.

  • Rockmorton65

    Some people around here have short memories and are, surprisingly sensitive. This happens to Backlund EVERY YEAR. He comes in with high expectations, and is sluggish out of the gate. Instead of gifting him the #2C spot, Hartley drops him in the rotation to get through to him what the expectations are. Eventually Backlund gets it and starts playing better.

    Another thought. Did anyone stop to think that maybe Backs is working through a physical or other issue and Hartley is protecting/shielding him? Maybe he’s experimenting with the middle 6 and slotting Backs on the bottom line (temporarily). It’s strange how some here are so quick to say that they know, without a doubt, why Hartley is not using someone correctly. We can’t know why somethings happening on the ice without knowing what’s going on off it.

  • Johnny Goooooooaldreau

    Backs is great possession wise and in a defensive role.
    Offensively, I get a bouwmeester vibe from him sometimes, and as Mike Peca said about jbo “he has no sense of urgency”

  • Burnward

    Backs isn’t as good as Mony or Bennett and isn’t playing as well as Stajan.

    Shame he hasn’t been able to get more ice time to fire some additional muffins from the outside to pad those corsi stats tho.

  • Franko J

    Backlund isn’t the only player under performing on this team through the first three games. However with greater expectations placed by the fans and the media and by the organization the players on the team this year are going to face more scrutiny and the pressure to win intensifies. Hopefully Backlund can regain some confidence and plays better come Friday night in Winnipeg against the Jets.

    • Johnny Goooooooaldreau

      Bingo. It’s a lot easier to play & win when everyone is expecting the whole group to lose. Look at Arizona. They are starting to look like last years Flames. We went from rebuild to transition. That went so well, everyone expects the transition to contending to happen in the same time frame but it doesn’t. Last year we found out that this team truly does have talent. Now lets how long it takes the team to takes to be a consistent contender. Not only the players but the coaches too.I am hoping Hartley knows how to do that too. I have noticed this team is playing a lot differently than they did last year.