Mikael Backlund has been one of the most reliable two-way players in the National Hockey League since 2013-14. This past season, he continued to play within the same role he’s had for years and performed rather well.
2018-19 season summary
Like many of the Flames, Backlund had a strong offensive season. Relied upon to shadow the NHL’s best and brightest alongside super-pest Matthew Tkachuk, he still managed to put up some impressive offensive totals.
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Backlund missed five games this season: four due to a concussion after a hit from Matt Dumba late in a Flames win over Minnesota, the fifth was as a healthy scratch in April after the Flames clinched top spot in the division and conference. Other than that, he played second line minutes in every game, with time sprinkled in on the second unit of both sides of special teams.
Elias Lindholm emerged during the season as the top penalty-killing forward on the team, so players like Backlund and Michael Frolik were a bit de-emphasized (in favour of players like Derek Ryan, Mark Jankowski and Garnet Hathaway that were less relied-upon at even strength). The benefit of not using Backlund and Frolik as much to kill penalties was seen in Bill Peters’ reliance on them on “bump up” shifts following kills, aiming to press the tired opposition players coming off an unsuccessful power play.
The de-emphasis of Frolik was a bit of a pattern throughout the season, with Backlund and Tkachuk accompanied by a rotation of right-side partners: Frolik, Sam Bennett, James Neal, Lindholm and Austin Czarnik all got a go. Considering Frolik had the best results by a sizable margin on that line, it’s curious that Peters was so resistant to just keep the trio together.
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Backlund hit career highs in five-on-five goals, primary assists, points and scoring chances (and just missed a career high in high danger chances). Possession-wise, he had the fourth-best Corsi for percentage among regular forwards – behind only Tkachuk, Frolik and Lindholm.
Rates-wise, Backlund was among the leaders in shot generation rates – shot attempts, shots and scoring chances – and more middle of the road in shot suppression rates. That said, playing against the top players in the league on a regular basis is bound to take a bite out of your underlyings and considering how many pucks went in the right direction (and into the opposing net) while he was on the ice, I’m sure the team considers the 2018-19 season a rousing success for #11.
Compared to last season
Backlund played effectively the same role in 2018-19 that he did in 2017-18. He played about as much and was used in the exact same general situations, though he had a high offensive zone start percentage in 2018-19 (and actually the highest he’s had since 2009-10).
His offensive and defensive rates were down a bit across the board from 2017-18, but all that amounted to was lower event shifts for Backlund’s line. His possession numbers were very similar, except he personally managed to generate more scoring chances.
What about next season?
Backlund is heading into his 30-year-old season. He’s under contract for five more seasons and has been performing as a high level two-way center for the past four or five seasons. It’s reasonable to assume that his numbers will stay roughly the same, though that depends on (a) how Tkachuk keeps developing as a high-end player and (b) what happens with Frolik. If Frolik is traded and Backlund and Tkachuk play with somebody significantly worse at hockey, life will become more challenging.
That said, if Backlund could carry the likes of Lance Bouma and Joe Colborne to productive seasons, who’s to doubt his ability to do it again?