Former Flames general manager Darryl Sutter selected Mikael Backlund with the 24th overall pick in the 2007 NHL Draft.
Sutter previously served as Flames head coach between 2003 and 2006 but had departed the post by the time Backlund made his NHL debut in 2009.
Now, more than a decade after resigning from his post as Flames GM, Sutter has returned as the team’s bench boss. In 2020–21, he finally got the chance to coach one of his most successful draft selections.
Backlund has long been a dependable secondary offensive threat for the Flames. He continued producing and munching high-leverage minutes for the team last season, although his finishing results took a slight hit. Let’s take a closer look.
It’s a little hard to believe, but 2020–21 was Mikael Backlund’s 13th season with the Flames. He played a single game with the club in 2008–09 and added 23 more the following year before becoming a regular under Brent Sutter in 2010–11.
Backlund scored 10 goals and 25 points in 73 games as a rookie that year, emerging as a responsible defensive player and trusted penalty-killer. He’s been a key part of Calgary’s man-down unit ever since.
While he’s never been a top-line scorer, Backlund has three 20-goal seasons to his name and topped out at 53 points in 2016–17. He came fourth in voting for that season’s Selke Trophy (finishing behind perennial candidates Patrice Bergeron, Ryan Kesler, and Mikko Koivu).
Oddly enough, Backlund’s recognition in Selke voting largely came after his defensive heyday. Evolving-Hockey adjudged Backlund’s even-strength defensive performance in 2016–17 as having been worth minus-2.5 goals above replacement, with his offensive play constituting the vast majority of his value (plus-8.8 goals above replacement).
— Mike Gould (@miketgould) July 6, 2021
To answer the question posed in the above tweet: Backlund received Selke votes in each season between 2016–17 and 2019–20, despite them being some of his least impressive defensive campaigns. He did, however, find offensive success in each of those years, compiling 190 points (73 goals, 117 assists) in 310 games to go along with his strong play-driving in the attacking zone.
Backlund started playing on a line with Matthew Tkachuk and Michael Frolik in that 2016–17 season. Dubbed by fans and (later) the team alike as the “3M Line,” the trio dominated possession and outscored its opponents in its three seasons of regular use.
Efficacy of the Calgary Flames’ “3M Line” demonstrated through a selection of play-driving figures (all data 5v5, via Natural Stat Trick)
|Season||Time spent together||Corsi For % with 3M Line||Corsi For % without any 3M Line members||Expected Goal % with 3M Line||Expected Goal % without any 3M Line members||Goals For % with 3M Line||Goals For % without any 3M Line members|
The original “3M Line” dissolved in the 2019–20 season as a result of Frolik’s decline and eventual trade. Andrew Mangiapane briefly served as Frolik’s replacement on the line before Tkachuk moved up to play on the top unit with Elias Lindholm in 2020–21, largely solidifying 3M’s demise.
Where did that leave Backlund?
Backlund only spent 124 minutes and 31 seconds playing with Tkachuk at even-strength in 2020–21. Instead, he played over half of his 721 minutes at 5-on-5 with Milan Lucic (365:13) and Andrew Mangiapane (395:28). Lucic, Backlund, and Mangiapane spent a total of 181:13 together as a trio.
Two obvious questions immediately emerge. The first: What should this line be called? “3M 2.0,” perhaps, for Mikael, Milan, and Mangiapane? Or, in a nod to Lucic’s physicality, how about the “MMA Line” (for Mikael, Milan, and Andrew)?
The second: How effective was this line?
Efficacy of members of the 2020–21 Calgary Flames’ “MMA Line” demonstrated through a selection of play-driving figures (all data 5v5, via Natural Stat Trick)
|Player configuration||Time on ice||Goals for||Goals against||Expected goals for||Expected goals against||Expected goals percentage||Corsi for||Corsi against|
|Lucic without Backlund||298:34||12||17||9.49||10.14||48.34||253||251|
|Mangiapane without Backlund||328:54||11||7||12.56||10.23||55.10||328||290|
|Lucic and Mangiapane with Backlund||181:13||9||8||8.27||5.14||61.67||183||142|
Lucic fared worse than Mangiapane in all categories during their respective shifts away from Backlund, sinking underwater both in terms of expected goals and actual goals and only barely emerging into the positives for shot attempts.
Mangiapane is an analytical darling who scored a career-high 18 goals in 56 games last season. He played some of his best hockey alongside Backlund on the MMA Line, with the trio controlling over 60% of the expected goals at 5-on-5 and effectively driving play in both directions.
According to Evolving-Hockey, Backlund posted the fourth-highest defensive expected goals above replacement figure on the Flames in 2020–21. He amassed 2.8 defensive xGAR in 54 games, only placing behind stalwarts Chris Tanev, Mark Giordano, and Derek Ryan on Calgary’s leaderboard.
Backlund finished with just nine goals in 2020–21, his lowest total since the lockout-shortened 2012–13 campaign. Nevertheless, he remained a high-volume shooter at 5-on-5 and only converted at a (likely unsustainable) 6.03% clip.
Backlund only scored nine goals last year but he took a *lot* of shots and finished with one of the highest expected goals/60 rates of his career. (From Natural Stat Trick) pic.twitter.com/WDhDgPHr5A
— Mike Gould (@miketgould) July 6, 2021
With 32 points in 54 games, Backlund scored at a 49-point pace over an 82-game schedule. Such a season would have ranked as the second-most productive of his career.
Backlund has three years remaining on a contract paying him $5.35 million per season. He turned 32 in March and, for the first time, will become eligible to submit a 10-team trade list to Flames management in 2021–22. (Backlund had a full no-trade clause for the first three years of his current six-year deal).
With the Seattle expansion draft looming, it appears likely the Flames will elect to include Backlund on their protection list. He’s a trusted presence on the ice and has long been active in the Calgary community along with his wife, Frida.
In June, he won his second Ralph and Sonia Scurfield Humanitarian Award as the Flames player who best exemplifies perseverance, determination, and leadership on the ice. He was also the Flames’ nominee for the King Clancy Award, which goes to the NHL player who best demonstrates leadership qualities on and off the ice and who has made significant humanitarian contributions to his community.
The Flames love having Backlund around their organization. He’s handsomely compensated for what he does and there’s a chance his contract eventually becomes a hindrance but, for now, it’s hard to imagine him in a different uniform.