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Photo Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

FlamesNation Player Evaluation: Mikael Backlund

Remember back to a time when fans and media had given up on Mikael Backlund.

It wasn’t that long ago, and yet it feels like a distant memory given how this past season went for the veteran centre. Hell, it’s incredible to think of Backlund now as a veteran of this team. Yet here we are again, another career year for the Selke-caliber centre, and the most consistent/vital/important forward from the 2016-17 season.

With next season being his final year under his current contract – a steal of a deal to be honest – we’re well into trying to determine just what Backlund should be paid. But right now, let’s just remember how special this season was: a season in which Backlund got great linemates and flourished to the level to many thought he could.

2016-17 season summary

The first quarter of the season for Backlund saw the exact same ebbs and flows of the team at times. Fortunately the brightest spot of that period was the infantile beginnings of what would become the 3M line. Adding Matthew Tkachuk to the combination of Backlund and Michael Frolik was a match made in heaven. By the time December and January rolled around, the line started reaping the rewards. You saw it as Backlund set a career-high in points in a single month (14) in December.

From January onward, Backlund continued to be a vital part of the Flames transition from their abysmal start to pushing the team into the playoff picture. When he wasn’t scoring, he was still finding a way to drive play. When he was on the penalty kill, playing in some of the most dire starts (defensive zone starts vs. on-the-fly starts), he was helping the Flames’ penalty kill suppress as much as they could. He contributed in virtually every circumstance possible this past season, even if his power play point point totals peaked early on.

By the end of the year, there was an obvious juxtaposition between how Glen Gulutzaan sees Mikael Backlund and what previous coaches saw in him. His ATOI of 17:36 was second to Johnny Gaudreau’s (18:29) in forwards. Even with the back injury that nagged him later on, Backlund remained healthy and it showed. Years of worry that unfortunate injury after unfortunate injury were behind him ended, and it’s hard not to be happy for a guy who lost so many games early on in his career.

This season was an incredible benchmark for Backlund and next year the Flames will rely even more on his abilities to make this team a threat in the west.

Compared to last season

Via Corsica (5v5):


The above 2015-16 season was a fantastic showing for Backlund, but compared to the 2016-17 season for him, it’s obvious just how much of an impact he made for the Flames:

Along with his pronounced and very apparent impact, Gulutzan made it very clear he wanted Backlund – and the rest of the 3M line – in the defensive zone to start. Excluding OTF (on-the-fly) starts, 41.08% of Backlund’s starts came in the defensive zone. In 2015-16: 32.17%, as we again see Gulutzan’s pattern of deployment at times. Not only did we see a massive swing when on the ice, but the ability to drive play from the defensive zone to the offensive zone became the calling card of the 3M line, often led by Backlund:

Most common linemates

Virtually glued to Frolik and Tkachuk’s hips all season, you can see the rewards being reaped when those three were on the ice together. It’s important to remember the context of the trio not being together as Backlund without Frolik (80.77) and without Tkachuk (212.48) is greatly skewed versus their time together.

As expected, basically every defenseman saw a noticeable bump in terms of shot attempts when on the ice with Backlund at 5v5.

What’s next?

Hopefully being re-signed sometime between July 1 and the end of next season. Honestly, there is little reason to even consider letting him leave Calgary. Though Sean Monahan had – by season’s end – taken some noticeable leaps forward under Gulutzan, Backlund is still the guy who is tasked with shutting down the opposition. No one drives play like him – as a centre – on this team and until someone can, it’s probably best for him to stick around.

Even if he starts to the show the ravages of age in his 30s, re-signing him to a comfortable contract with appropriate term gives the organization prolonged strength down the middle.

He finally has – at the very least – one linemate next season in Frolik. If Gulutzan plays him with Tkachuk as well, the Flames will likely have two capable lines again. If they elect to promote Tkachuk to a different line, then they’ll need to maximize the best option available. If Micheal Ferland is still with the team, he could be an option, or even Kris Versteeg if he is re-signed.


#1 – Brian Elliott #5 – Mark Giordano
#6 – Dennis Wideman #7 – T.J. Brodie
#10 – Kris Versteeg

 

  • BringtheFire

    For me it was Backs’ off season. He put in the work. Particularly his shot. He can laser that thing with a short snap shot in little space. Plus, he was simply faster and stronger this year.

    It’s all in the off season work…

    • It’s all in the usage. He finally had a coach who knew what he had. Backlund has shown almost his entire career this is what he’s capable of, and his ham brained oaf of a coach never elevated him the way Gully did

  • King Quong

    I’d like the flames to give this a try next season

    Johnny – Monahan – Ferland
    Frolik – Backlund – Lazar
    Tkachuk – Bennett – Versteeg

    Ideally the top 3 would keep up how they’ve been playing before id imagine frolik and Backlund could carry lazar easily and hopefully Tkachuk and versteeg would be enough to allow Bennett to succeed giving the flames 3 good lines instead of just the top 6 succeeding, I’m sure Backlund and frolik wouldn’t put up as good of numbers but should still be positive players.

      • King Quong

        I’d rather have Bennett succeeding than having Backlund Dominating, I still believe Backlund would do fine without him and ultimately Tkachuk and Bennett are closer to each other age wise they’ll be in their prime during the same years while Backlund will be entering his “post apex” so idk logically to me I’d play the two together as in the future that’s probably what’s going to happen. But then again I still think Bennett is going to be the best player on the team.

  • Just.Visiting

    He had a great year and deserves full marks for taking his game up a level. I’d like to see us solve our RW problem by moving Tkachuk to the right side with Monahan and Gaudreau. Then drop either Ferland or Janko in with the Mikes and the other with Bennett. My own preference would be Janko because of the strong balanced intelligent game he brings and the benefit to his development by playing with the Mikes. We have to start moving guys like that into the lineup to position ourselves as a contender, rather than continuing to bring in 30-35 point veterans who aren’t going to help us move to the next level.