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.
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?
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.