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The Flames need more from a few important players

We’re only six games in, but an encouraging start through three games has turned sour less than two weeks later. With a third straight loss Thursday, and a frustrating one at that, it’s clear Calgary needs more from a handful of key individuals. In particular, the team’s two longest serving players are off to subpar starts by their standards. For the Flames to reach the heights they aspire to, that narrative needs to change in a hurry.

Mikael Backlund

Last we saw Backlund prior to this season, he was one of Calgary’s most consistent forwards in the summer’s Return to Play. Before the NHL’s pause, Backlund was on one of the best runs of his career upon being reunited with Matthew Tkachuk and Andrew Mangiapane. That isn’t what we’ve seen through six games of this shortened season.

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Straight up, we’re just not used to seeing Backlund look as out of sorts as he’s been so far. This website, the online Flames community, and me personally have all been Backlund’s biggest boosters and defenders over the last half decade or so. At his best, Backlund is a two-way force capable of driving the bus in any situation. That’s what we’ve been conditioned to expect, which is why his five-on-five outputs in 2021 have been so jarring. All stats courtesy Natural Stat Trick.

CF% HDCF% xGF% OZS%
52.3 40.0 50.0 40.0

Analytically, this is the most pedestrian we’ve seen Backlund in a long time. To see him being out-chanced at high danger (15-10) is completely foreign territory. Judging by the eye, Backlund has struggled defensively compared to his high standards and looks less confident than he has in ages. It’s in stark contrast to the dominant form we saw in the final 16 games last season after being reunited with Tkachuk and Mangiapane.

CF% HDCF% xGF% OZS%
54.6 63.0 58.3 50.0

That line, driven by Backlund, was one of the NHL’s best for the final six weeks of the regular season. Granted, I’m comparing extremes, as that stretch in February and March 2020 was one of the best of Backlund’s career. In saying that, we have recent evidence of what he’s capable of, which makes Backlund’s start to the season that much more puzzling.

Backlund has had stretches like this before and has always bounced back. I’m confident that’ll happen again, but it has to happen soon. When Backlund is at his two-way best, Calgary is a significantly better team. With how deep the North Division is down the middle, the Flames need Backlund back at that level to fight near the top of the pack.

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Mark Giordano and Rasmus Andersson

Calgary’s top pair this season has been outstanding. The thing is, that pairing hasn’t been Giordano and Andersson. As Pike wrote earlier this week, the Flames have been anchored by the duo of Noah Hanifin and Chris Tanev on the back. Andersson and Giordano, however, have been underwater for the majority of their 74:43 of ice time together five-on-five.

CF% HDCF% xGF% OZS%
49.2 38.5 43.2 52.0

Those numbers aren’t pretty for a pairing most projected as Calgary’s number one coming into the season. Giordano and Andersson have leaked scoring chances at even strength and have been more likely to be scored on than vice versa, albeit with a small sample size.

Like Backlund, that’s not what we’re used to from either player individually, or together as a pairing. Prior to the summer restart, Giordano was still this team’s best defenceman during the regular season. Andersson, on the other hand, made huge strides in his second full NHL campaign. When together last year, like they were for 276:30, Giordano and Andersson were quite strong.

CF% HDCF% xGF% OZS%
54.9 56.6 56.1 54.5

The contrast is what sticks out once again. While Giordano played with TJ Brodie (622:40) more than twice as much as with Andersson, we still got a decent sample size of what this pairing is capable of. With that knowledge, the Flames were confident in letting Brodie walk in free agency and then turning their attention to signing Tanev.

If Giordano and Andersson return closer to last season’s form, Calgary’s top four on defence has a chance to be the best in the division, especially with how Tanev and Hanifin have played. There’s still time for that to happen, but with a shortened season in a tight division, the runway isn’t infinite, either.

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