Photo credit:Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports
Flames forward Mikael Backlund joins elite company on Saturday
By Ryan Pike2 years ago
On Jan. 8, 2009, Swedish hockey prospect Mikael Backlund made his National Hockey League debut for the Calgary Flames against the New York Islanders. Roughly 13 years (and a month) later, he’ll enter the upper echelon of the franchise’s games-played ranks when he suits up against the Seattle Kraken on Saturday night.
It’s a big achievement for someone who’s quietly become one of the organization’s best players ever.
A product of Vasteras, in central Sweden, Backlund came up through the local junior squad and was drafted by the Flames in the first round of the 2007 NHL Draft. (The general manager at the time was current Flames bench boss Darryl Sutter.)
After another season in Sweden, the Flames opted to bring Backlund to North America midway through the 2008-09 season. Backlund ended up having a pretty eventful 10 day period in January 2009, capturing a silver medal at the World Juniors in Ottawa, going west to debut for the Flames in Calgary, then ending up making his Western Hockey League debut with Kelowna a few days later.
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Backlund ended up winning a WHL Championship with the Rockets that season and played in the Memorial Cup tournament as well. He went pro the following season and split his time between the Flames and the American Hockey League’s Abbotsford Heat. His first few pro seasons were an apprenticeship of sorts, as Flames head coach Brent Sutter spent a few seasons drilling into him the fundamentals of defensive-minded hockey.
Backlund became a full-time NHLer by the 2010-11 season (as a 21-year-old) but untimely injuries and his reputation as a defensive player hampered his upward movement in the lineup. The arrival of Bob Hartley as coach in 2012, combined with a lockout that saw him play with his hometown team in Sweden’s second division, unlocked his potential. Hartley had no preconceived notions of Backlund’s role, while Backlund came back from Sweden when the lockout resumed with a renewed sense of confidence playing against high-end players.
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As a result, Backlund blossomed over the next few seasons. While his offensive numbers made an uptick – something that continued in subsequent seasons – he became relied upon as the Flames’ shutdown centre and frequently played against the top opposition players. His success in that role earned him Selke Trophy votes in four consecutive seasons (2016-17 through 2019-20), peaking with him finishing fourth in balloting in 2016-17. He’s definitely benefited from being a strong role player in the Better Stats Era, as analysts and media types are better able to capture his importance and value compared to similar players in prior eras.
Backlund’s success as a two-way stalwart allowed him to find himself on key lines for the Flames with players such as Matthew Tkachuk, Michael Frolik, Andrew Mangiapane and Blake Coleman. He’s also been a fixture on the club’s top penalty-killing unit and second power play for several seasons. Backlund is a player who’s been trusted by basically every Flames coach, and as a result he touches basically every part of the game.
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It’s also worth noting that Backlund’s ascendance within the Flames has coincided with him experiencing prominence and success within Sweden’s national team. He’s represented Sweden at two Under-18 Worlds, two World Juniors, the World Cup and five World Championships. He captained Sweden’s gold medal winning World Championship squad in 2018.
Saturday night will be Backlund’s 792nd regular season game with the Flames, moving him past Theoren Fleury into fifth place all-time in franchise history. The only players ahead of him are Jarome Iginla (1,219), Mark Giordano (949), Robyn Regehr (826) and Al MacInnis (803). With 34 games remaining in the season after Saturday, it seems likely that Backlund passes MacInnis this season and he could tie Regehr if he plays every remaining game. With two seasons left on his current contract, he could potentially reel Giordano in as well.
Backlund probably won’t be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. He’s never been the Flame’s best player, and hasn’t really spent very much time on their first line during his career. But he’s been a very important player to their success, current and past, because of how many things he does well on the ice and how those things make life easier on his teammates.
So on Saturday, raise a glass to Backlund as he approaches the loftiest heights on the Flames’ all-time games played leaderboard.
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