After a superb season, what does the future hold for Mikael Backlund?
Photo credit:Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports
By Ryan Pike1 month ago
A lot of things did not go according to plan for the Calgary Flames in the 2022-23 season. But while a lot of things went poorly for the club this past season, one player that was a consistent positive presence for the Flames was centre Mikael Backlund.
In his 14th NHL season, Backlund may have played his finest hockey of his career.
A product of Västerås, Sweden, Backlund worked his way up through his local team’s system and made his pro hockey debut in 2005-06 (the season he turned 17). The following season, he spent half of his time in pro hockey and eventually ended up being selected in the first round by the Flames in the 2007 NHL Draft.
Backlund spent one more season in Sweden before leaving Västerås midway through the 2008-09 season, playing at the World Juniors for Sweden in Ottawa, debuting for the Flames at home, and then joining the Western Hockey League’s Kelowna Rockets for their championship run. He joined the Flames’ farm system in 2009-10 and became a full-time NHLer early in the 2010-11 season.
After being a player with strong analytics but inconsistent offensive results – a “best-kept secret” – Backlund really took a step following the 2012-13 lockout and seemed to find his stride offensively starting in 2013-14. He developed a reputation as a premium shutdown forward starting around 2016-17, the first season he started receiving Selke Trophy votes, and since then he’s become a crucial part of the Flames’ lineup.
Backlund’s been a fixture up the middle for the Flames since 2010. He’s been their go-to shutdown centre since 2013, and been an alternate captain since 2018.
To put it simply, in 2022-23, Mikael Backlund was Mikael Backlund. He played in all 82 games for the club and set a career high in points.
During the off-season, the Flames signed Nazem Kadri in free agency. Doing so pushed Backlund down the rotation to the on-paper third slot, behind Kadri and Elias Lindholm. Somewhat ironically, Backlund was arguably leaned upon by the Flames coaching staff more during the 2022-23 season than he had in previous seasons.
Only Blake Coleman played more five-on-five time among Flames forwards. Only Lindholm played more shorthanded minutes among forwards than Backlund. He was sixth among forwards in power play ice time, spending time on both the first and second units.
At five-on-five, he played on five different primary units:
His time with Jonathan Huberdeau was an attempt by the coaching staff to help Huberdeau get used to their checking system. His time with Adam Ruzicka was likely designed to help Ruzicka find 200-foot consistency. His time with Lewis was likely an attempt to balance lines. And his time with Mangiapane and Coleman saw the trio rekindle their chemistry as one of the top possession lines in hockey.
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Backlund was one of eight Flames to play all 82 games. His 19 goals were fourth on the team. His 37 assists were fifth on the team. His 56 points were tied, with Kadri, for third on the team. His +24 rating led the entire team. His 260 shots on goal was third on the team. He played in his 900th career game during the season.
In a year where not a lot of things went as hoped for the Flames, Backlund gave them leadership, consistency, and occasional brilliance. He’s the club’s nominee for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, and has garnered some Selke Trophy buzz as well. In a season where he celebrated his 34th birthday, Backlund’s play strongly suggested that he’s getting better with age.
What’s next for Mikael Backlund?
Backlund turned 34 on St. Patrick’s Day. His contract runs through the 2023-24 season, at which point he would become a 35-year-old unrestricted free agent. He’s been a good soldier, arguably a great one, for the Flames franchise for the better part of a decade and a half.
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But the question is: what does he have left to accomplish with the Flames? He was pretty blunt about it on exit interview day: He’s 34. He wants to win a Stanley Cup. When asked if he would be interested in a potential extension, he didn’t mince words. “I might want to see what this group could do before I make a decision.”
Six first-rounders from Backlund’s draft class have won Stanley Cups. He would like to join them. And in his own words, the dream would be do to that in Calgary. If that’s not in the cards, it might be the right move – and a way to do right by somebody who’s been excellent for the Flames – to give him a chance to do so elsewhere.
Letter grade: B+
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