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.
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.
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.
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.