Mikael Backlund isn’t about to weaken his bargaining position.
There is a good reason the pending unrestricted free agent currently sticks to clichés when it comes to talking contract.
The 28-year-old centre finished fourth last year in voting for the Selke Trophy, given annually to the NHL’s best defensive forward. He’s taken prove-it deal after prove-it deal with the Calgary Flames over the last decade, but has finally outplayed his cap hit over the duration of his current three-year pact.
He’s about ready to cash in.
If he hits the open market, Backlund will be one of the most sought-after players at his position. John Tavares would be the only centreman younger and more dynamic. Paul Stastny, Henrik Sedin and Joe Thornton are others of note.
But while Backlund’s countryman Erik Karlsson and Drew Doughty talk openly about their quest for the holy paycheck in 2019 when their deals expire a little more than a year from now, the Flames centre is fine with letting them take the contract spotlight and just going about his business on the ice months away from his own opportunity.
“Everyone is different. Some guys are more open about it and talk about their feelings. No matter how I feel I’m not going to tell,” Backlund said with a smile after a recent practice. “In respect for my agent and for Calgary.”
Not talking about it isn’t the same as not thinking about it. And there is plenty of chatter at home about how things may turn out.
“We talk about it a bit at home. It crosses my mind. It’s our future,” he said of himself and fiancée Frida Engstrom. “We have a big connection to Calgary, and love it here, but it’s a business and we’ll see what happens.”
There it is, the “it’s a business” cliché.
You can’t blame the guy. Saying he is willing to take less than market value to stay with the franchise that drafted him in the first round in 2007 puts the Flames in a position of power on the bargaining front. Suggesting he’s willing to pimp himself out in free agency come July 1 could also create an awkward environment as he plays out the year and tries to help the team make the playoffs — and then succeed in the postseason.
So instead of talking about a potential hometown discount, let’s just talk about his hockey hometown and his place in it. That topic brings a smile to his face as he tells the story of an interaction that came on the city’s streets just after the recent five-day break. Backlund was walking his two dogs — both Alberta-born, by the way — and listening to a podcast when he noticed something a little unusual.
“I saw this car driving by once, then driving by twice. I thought they were just trying to find their way around the neighbourhood, and not focusing on me — at least that’s what I was telling myself,” he said. “The third time they came by, they honked and rolled down the window. They asked me if I was this famous hockey player. I said, ‘I think so.’
“They just exploded with excitement. That was a pretty cool moment, to see how excited they were to see me.”
The family stayed in the car wearing giant grins while talking to the friendly neighbourhood dog-walker, telling him they have seen him around with the animals but only now drummed up the courage to say something.
Always happy to pose for a picture, sign an autograph or just talk to fans, Backlund has grown as a player, a person, and as a local ambassador. That includes investing time and money into his philanthropic efforts, supporting Special Olympics Calgary, ALS research and Kids Cancer Care. He donates $150 for every point he scores to Kids Cancer Care and brings affected families to games as their champion. He was given the Ralph T. Scurfield Award in 2014 recognizing his contributions to the Calgary community.
He means a lot to Calgary, the city.
He means a lot to the team, too.
“Culturally, he’s important in the locker room — the great pro he is, the way he lives his life, the way he approaches the game. So he’s a great mentor for our young guys,” said head coach Glen Gulutzan, who has plenty of young players in need of good role models.
“On the ice, he’s our matchup guy. He plays the heavy, hard minutes. I think he’s one of a handful of guys that can do that in the league on a nightly basis, and he does it for us.”
A handful of guys in the league. Gulutzan is talking Selke candidates, of course. On pace for another 50-point season, Backlund’s offensive numbers may be relatively modest, but his possession metrics are among the best in the league and he does it while starting almost 60% of his faceoffs outside of the opposition’s blue line.
The three finalists ahead of Backlund in the Selke voting make a whole lot more money, but not for long. Patrice Bergeron is almost halfway through an eight-year deal worth $6.875 per season. Ryan Kesler is in the second year of a six-year pact that pays him the same annual average. Mikko Koivu isn’t far behind in the final season of his seven-year contract worth $6.75 million per.
Backlund’s offensive numbers haven’t hit the same heights, but he is in line for a big raise from the $3.575 million per year he’s making now. The contract Frans Nielsen signed with the Detroit Red Wings as a UFA two summers ago ($5.25M for six years) isn’t likely enough given that Backlund is five years younger and still on an upward trajectory.
Derek Stepan’s $6.5 million average may a bit high considering the Rangers signed him when he was just 25, after a significantly higher points-per-game campaign than any Backlund has managed. But the Flames pivot will likely land somewhere in the $6M range if he pairs 50-plus points with his gaudy fancy stats — especially if he gets up in the top five in Selke voting again.
With Matt Stajan’s salary coming off the books this summer, the Flames can afford the extra $2.5 or so million for Backlund come July 1, although they’ll want to be cautious of term because of all the young players who could be looking at hefty contracts in the next four to five years. It’s clear linemate Matthew Tkachuk is already worthy of skipping the traditional bridge when his entry level deal expires a year from now.
The bottom line for the Flames’ bottom line is their best chance to re-sign Backlund comes before July 1, when the appeal of staying in the city that patiently developed him may take a backseat to more lucrative offers.
“It definitely feels like home to me now. It’s the same for my fiancée as well. She’s been here for four seasons,” Backlund said. “When we go back to Sweden in the summer, we say we go home but when we come back here in the fall we say we’re going home again. It’s nice that way, we have two homes.”
It would be tough to see Backlund leave so soon after the first-rounder began to live up to that billing and win over the entire fanbase.
“Over the years there have definitely been positives and negatives. I was a first-rounder, of course people are going to focus on me. To start, maybe I wasn’t living up to expectations on the ice,” Backlund said. “The last few years, playing better hockey … people have always been super nice to me but I know there’s been doubters out there. I’m happy to prove them wrong and I’m happy I’m still in Calgary.”
So is Frida, who tells Mikael she’s “happy wherever you are,” knowing that her home design and photography careers will be their focus as a family when her future husband’s hockey career eventually ends.
Gulutzan believes there’s even more to come on that front, too.
“On the ice, I’ll be honest with you, I think Mikael has another level. Getting to know that player, I think there’s even more here this year, too. It’s my job to try to find that in him and get it out of him,” said Gulutzan. “If you look at top centres in the league, they play in all situations. He does that — five on five, five on four, last minute of games, shutdown role, three on three, you name it. He does it all.
“He runs at a hot level, but there’s a margin there he can even push himself, and maybe that’s from the mental side.”
Let’s hope tapping into it doesn’t price him right out of the Flames’ budget.