More than halfway through the season for Calgary, a convincing argument can be made that Mikael Backlund has been the team’s MVP.
Because he’s been so good all season, you can start to hear a little buzz linking Backlund to the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s top two-way forward. I’m here to tell you that buzz should be a little louder because his case for the annual award is very, very strong.
To break down Backlund’s case for the award, I thought it would be a good idea to demonstrate just how good he’s been this year when compared to his teammates and then to the rest of the league. In doing so, I think it makes a pretty strong argument for where Backlund would be if they were to hand out awards right now.
On the Flames
For me, Backlund has indeed been Calgary’s MVP this season. He leads the team in goals and points while being primarily deployed in a defensive shutdown role frequently against the opposing team’s best players. If you don’t want to take my word for it, let’s have the numbers do the talking instead.
To put those totals into perspective, only Matthew Tkachuk, Michael Frolik, and Dougie Hamilton have better possession rates on the Flames than Backlund does. The first two play on the same line as he does while the latter is a defenceman and so is excluded from the Selke conversation. Not to take anything away from Tkachuk or Frolik, but knowing the position he plays, I think it’s fair to say Backlund drives his line, which just happens to be the best on the team.
Usage wise, only Tkachuk, Lance Bouma, Matt Stajan, Garnet Hathaway, and Freddie Hamilton have started fewer shifts in the offensive zone than Backlund has. For context, the final four players are all used in primarily fourth line roles against similar opposition. To see Backlund buried the way he has been this season and still put up point and possession totals like he has is impressive.
It’s startling to think where Calgary would be without Backlund and the rest of the 3M Line (ahem, FlamesNation original, ahem). When this team was bad through October and November, they were one of the few saving graces. As the team has turned things around, Backlund and company have been the driving force behind the team’s rise to a wildcard spot. The 3M Line has been one of the best lines in hockey this season and the Flames would significantly worse off without them.
Part of why I think Backlund has such a strong case for the Selke this year is the way the rest of the competition stacks up. Not only is he having a stellar season, but the perennial winners of this award are also having down campaigns themselves.
Over the last five years, the trophy has been won by one of Patrice Bergeron, Anze Kopitar, or Jonathan Toews. As we sit here in the middle of January, Backlund’s season to date trumps all three of them fairly convincingly.
Against similar competition but with far less high ground, Backlund has comparable or better possession numbers than the Selke power trio and has also produced significantly more on the offensive side of things. While it’s not out of the realm of possibility to see one of Kopitar, Toews, or Bergeron turns things around dramatically, you’re likely not going to see all three of them in contention for the award at the end of the year.
Backlund’s favourable comparisons to the rest of the league don’t stop with those three players, though. Taking them out of the conversation, I put together a rough list of other players who might be in the conversation when taking into account the intended spirit of the award.
When compiling the list below, I used fairly simple but relevant criteria. All the players had to have 30 points or more at the time of publishing and all had to start well under half the time in the offensive zone. Ranked by their shot rate, here’s what I came up with:
Backlund’s numbers are comparable or better to everyone on the list with his possession rate really jumping off the page. Furthermore, Benn, Granlund, and Miller all play primarily on the wing, making Backlund’s case even stronger knowing a centre has won the Selke for the last 12 years in a row.
While my system to come up with potential candidates for the Selke isn’t perfect, I certainly think it carries with it plenty of validity. The fact of the matter is, Backlund has been one of the league’s best centres this season regardless of how you want to track it. The fact he’s thriving while shouldering some of the toughest responsibility in the league makes him absolutely deserving of Selke Trophy conversation.
As I see it right now, Backlund’s stiffest competition would come from Kesler if the award were to be given out today. In similarly difficult spots, Kesler has put up better point totals on a team fighting for a division title. On top of that, Kesler is a former winner of the trophy and has a little more name recognition around the league.
The Flames still have 35 games to go and so much can happen between now and early April. That said, if Backlund continues to play and produce the way he has through his first 47 games, it would be a crime to not see him as a Selke finalist at the end of the season.