Photo Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

Life without Mikael Backlund: How the Flames could adapt without their shutdown centre

Make no mistake: Mikael Backlund is a devastating loss for the Flames, and one perhaps made all the worse by the fact that, unlike with Mark Giordano and his suspension, there may not be a clear timetable for his return.

The Flames have been relatively lucky injury-wise to start the season. They lost Travis Hamonic early on, which saw their defence play less than optimally; presently, Michael Frolik and Juuso Valimaki have been out with injuries, as well.

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But Hamonic was likely the biggest loss the Flames have experienced until now – losing a top four defenceman to start the year is never optimal. However, we’ve seen others afforded chances due to injuries: without Hamonic going down, Rasmus Andersson probably wouldn’t be an NHL regular today. Valimaki’s injury gives the organization a chance to see Oliver Kylington in the NHL, as well.

That’s about where the benefits end. The Flames had defensive prospects pretty much at, or near, NHL level. The same can’t be said for the forward group: Dillon Dube needed time in the AHL, and while Andrew Mangiapane is currently getting a chance in his stead, having Ryan Lomberg in the lineup at any point instead of Frolik is suboptimal.

And that’s to say nothing about the Flames losing their fifth best forward, and one of their key shutdown weapons. Backlund is the guy who gets sent out to neutralize other teams’ top opponents, and he does it while being well over half a point-per-game; he’s the next best offensive weapon the Flames have outside of their big five. He’s the quintessential two-way player, and the Flames have no immediate replacement for him.

In short: it’s going to be tough without him. And it’s going to be even tougher the longer he’s out.

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It does pose a question, however: the Flames have yet to deal with such a big disruption to their forward group. Frolik played anywhere from the second to the fourth line at any given moment, but Backlund has had an important role carved out specifically for him the entire season. If you can’t replace that, how do you adapt?

In the short term

If Backlund isn’t projected to be out too long – something we have no real way of knowing – then a minor shakeup could be in the cards. The Flames do have an abundance of centres, after all; while Sean Monahan has a clear spot in the lineup, the world isn’t going to end if Mark Jankowski or Derek Ryan get a bigger role for a little while (with Austin Czarnik available to slot in for a bottom six centre role – or even a potential Dube recall, if that’s in the cards).

This season, Backlund has started 62.16% of his shifts at 5v5 in the offensive zone, so it isn’t even a zone start issue the team has to worry about; Jankowski is at 59.15% and Ryan 51.92%. Jankowski is just barely outscoring Ryan – 10 points to Ryan’s nine – so maybe it’ll be him that gets first call on an early promotion.

In the long term

If, however, Backlund will be out for a substantial amount of time, then the Flames might want to consider a more drastic shakeup, particularly if neither Jankowski nor Ryan is able to hold up to the rigours of Backlund’s responsibilities. Such a solution would involve breaking up one of the NHL’s most consistent and successful lines to date: removing Elias Lindholm from Monahan’s wing, and putting Matthew Tkachuk on his.

At the very least, it should be something the Flames look into if they’ll be without Backlund’s services long term. Lindholm is one of the best forwards on the team, and with a 55.1% success rate, easily the best regular faceoff man they have.

Really, the conundrum comes down to: should the Flames maintain one super line, or split Lindholm from it to have two pretty good lines? Johnny Gaudreau and Monahan have established chemistry, and it’s not like playing with Tkachuk is going to be a downgrade for anyone.

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The only question then is who fills out the rest of the lines – James Neal is a given for at least one of them, and perhaps someone like Mangiapane could get his chance playing on the other. (Let’s be honest, though, it’s Bill Peters – a lot of guys are probably going to get a chance, and we’re probably going to see some weird combinations.)

If there’s any silver lining to losing Backlund – and it’s a really faint one – it’s that maybe, like with Andersson when Hamonic was out, another forward will be able to establish himself. It won’t be a direct replacement to everything Backlund does, but it could be in a new role – and maybe, like with Andersson, the Flames could emerge all the stronger from the experience. That’s pretty much the best case scenario.

The Flames are already in the midst of a worst case one, though: however they figure to cope with Backlund’s absence, the lineup is still that much deeper, that much more capable, when he’s in it. His is a huge loss that’s going to be difficult to overcome.

  • Chucky

    This is obviously Jankowski’s biggest opportunity of his career. If he can establish himself as a legitimate second line centre by fitting in with two talented wings and having that line dominate play then it is possible that Backlund returns with true shutdown wingers. The Flames would be a better team going to the playoffs if a line evolves that has Tkachuk focused on offense, not that he can’t handle the defensive responsibility but it would be great if they did not have to rely on him for that role.

    • everton fc

      To a lesser extent, this is Czarnik’s chance to get regular shifts, every game. If he produces nil, I say he’s no more than an extra forward, or a “tweener”.

  • Burnward

    What a long way they’ve come in a short time.

    Even last year losing Backs, Frolik and gio would have been a disaster.

    This season, I have faith they can still get the job done. Won’t be easy. But the horses they have are still pretty solid.

    Impressive team building regardless of how this weekend goes.

  • moore_tweets

    I don’t see Neal in a shutdown role, so why not play him on the top line? Best case, he gets on the board with some points, maybe even a goal. Worst case, Johnny and Mony carry the workload. Maybe try Tkachuk with Lindy and Bennett? Then mash the rest like Peters probably would anyway. Biggest question is defense. Will Brodie step it up? Who’s going to contain McDavid on Sunday?

  • Redleader

    I like that Top line, but a line of TKACHUK Lindholm Bennett sounds like a decent line too , maybe this is an opportunity for Neal to get going on the Toplne.

    • The Beej

      I think before they break up that top line for any real stretch, Bennett, Janko, Ryan all get a shot at 2C. Failing that they will break up the top line.

      Although for one of the games on the weekend I could see Lindholm getting 2C duty. At least they wouldnt have to break up the first powerplay unit if they did move Lindholm to center.

  • Orrwasbest

    We are all missing the obvious solution. There will be growing pains but Dube will eventually take over Backs role so might as well give him the experience while its there and live with the growing pains just like we did/are on D.

  • MDG1600

    BP must be warming up to Janks because it is surprising that he isn’t playing Ryan as the 2C. That said, I suspect Janks will be on a short leash from BP with Ryan at his disposal.

  • MDG1600

    Kudos to BP for keeping Neal away from the 2nd line. We all hope he is going to get better but there just isn’t any evidence on paper or to the eyeball that it is happening. The guy is so slow and handles the puck so poorly I can’t imagine how he ever scored 40 goals.

  • everton fc

    Interesting the 2nd line at practice was a line I am very much looking forward to – Tkachuk/Jankowski/Bennett. I think this line will reap results.

    Ryan is simply not the centre to get Neal going. Mangiapane’s game may get Neal going, but not Neal’s. That’s how I see it. I think Mangiapane-Dube/Lazar-Neal would be the best default option. I just have this funny feeling if they bring Lazar back, he will produce results under Peters, under a system that I believe is a better fit for Lazar’s game. Lazar can skate, he works hard on both ends of the ice, and had positive moments with Gaudreau and Monahan, in the past. Mangiapane-Lazar-Neal, may just surprise us all. I do like Ryan, but not as a centre to get Neal going.

    If Neal can’t get going… I wonder if they entertain offers at the trade deadline? Doubtful. But we can’t have this guy scoring 10 goals, with 12 assists, for 5.5mill/season. A worse investment than the Brouwer fiasco.

    • His Dudeness

      Better chance Lazar would get stapled to the bench by BP since he is a better coach then GG who would continue to roll out Stajan and Lazar in the 3rd period no matter the situation of the game.

  • buts

    Backlund out will not be as big a loss as you say Ari. He is a number 3 Center riding Tkachuk. Defensively good, offensively bad and given pp time which should not happen. Jankowski can fill his spot easily if given the chance. Gio being out will be the big loss this weekend. Lindholm would also be a great choice for the 2C spot.

    • Atomic Clown

      Jesus. Guy was putting up 40-45 points before Tkachuk was put on his line with the likes of Lance Bouma and Joe Colborne and Mason Raymond. His offensive prowess has never been his strength. He’s a defensive juggernaut that shuts down the league’s most offensive players. Not everyone can be Kopitar or Bergeron; if he was then we’d be paying him $8+ million.

    • northernstamp

      There’s a great article in the Calgary Herald that captures what his teammates think about Backlund being out. I’m going to go with their opinion over yours.

  • Heeeeere’s Johnny

    Sometimes you really find out what you have when you miss it. Backlund PDC May be the most polarizing player to us on this site. Love him or hate him. I guess now we get to see what we have by it’s absence. God help us if WW is right! ??

    • TKO

      he maybe polarizing on THIS site, ONLY because there are one or two people who have created a narrative and not willing to acknowledge the reality, and continually drone on about how bad he is, but ask someone who watches closely and knows -Keith Tkachuk, who says that Mathew is lucky to be playing with a guy like Backlund, who Keith called the most underrated player in the league

      • calgaryfan

        Why would Keith Tkachuk say anything else. His son has to go into the dressing room every day. What good would it do for Keith to stir the pot? I am looking forward to seeing how the Flames do without Backlund.

  • Brian McGrattan's Salute

    I hope we’re all taking note of the hope Backs will leave for that WW fellow. We’ll all get to see just how awesome losing one of our best centres will be…

  • L.Kolkind

    Tkachuk – Bennett – Neal is my short-term solution. Give Bennett one last kick at the can to see if he can be the centre we hoped we were drafting and giving Neal more minutes should make him happy.

  • TKO

    Jankowski is clearly the best option to try first regarding shutting down the other teams top line… don’t get sucked into a “he isn’t a 2nd liner” type of mindset… Janks is a shut down center, and a pretty good one, and this can be his coming out party