Mikael Backlund remained the Calgary Flames’ two-way Swedish king in 2021-22
Photo credit:Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
By Ryan Pike9 months ago
For much of the past decade, Calgary Flames centre Mikael Backlund has been a picture of Swedish consistency and efficiency. He’s been a fixture on the team’s “tough minutes” second line, facing the best and brightest of the National Hockey League. As he creeps towards his mid-30s, he remains a definitive net positive for the Flames and received Selke Trophy votes for the fifth time in six seasons.
The top line rightfully got their accolades, but Backlund’s work was once again crucial to the Flames’ on-ice success.
A product of Vasteras, Sweden, Backlund came up through the system of his hometown team, VIK Vasteras HK, and representing Sweden in a pair of Under-18 World Championships. He ended up being selected by the Flames in the first round of the 2007 NHL Draft. He spent another season and a half in Sweden after being drafted, but signed with the Flames mid-season and joined the AHL’s Abbotsford Heat following the 2009 World Juniors tournament in Ottawa.
Backlund transitioned to North American pro hockey in 2009-10 and quickly emerged as a really good AHLer and a promising, albeit unpolished, NHL depth player. Become an NHL regular in the Flames’ bottom six to begin the 2010-11 season, Backlund quickly became a perplexing figure: he had great defensive acumen and untapped offensive potential, but he had the worst injury luck. (Case in point: he was slated to be Jarome Iginla centre one season coming out of training camp, but broke his hand in the last practice before the season began.)
Backlund’s game turned a corner following the 2012-13 lockout. He spent the play stoppage in Sweden, back with his hometown team in Vasteras, and played against some of the top NHLers on loan to that league. He came back to the NHL with a renewed belief in his abilities, and proceeded to have the best season of his career to that point.
Since 2012-13, Backlund has been the Flames’ defensive conscience among their forwards and their go-to “tough minutes” forward. Moreover, struggling players have been placed with him and enjoyed good seasons, and good players have been placed with him and enjoyed great seasons. (This has been called “the Backlund bump” by the analytics community.)
Backlund spent the better part of three seasons (2016-19) with Michael Frolik and Matthew Tkachuk on the 3M Line. Then he spent two seasons with Andrew Mangiapane and different wingers – primarily Tkachuk in 2019-20 and Milan Lucic in 2020-21.
In 2021-22, Backlund remained Backlund, playing on a shutdown line in a shutdown role where offensive contributions were a bonus, but not necessarily the primary goal.
He spent the entire season on the second line, the first penalty killing unit and most of the season on the second power play unit. At five-on-five, he played primarily with Mangiapane and Blake Coleman, or with Mangiapane or Coleman with another winger with them. (It’s the third season in a row where Mangiapane has played primarily with Backlund, and coincided with Mangiapane’s third consecutive best season as an NHLer. The Backlund bump is alive and well.)
Offensively, Backlund had 29 five-on-five points – tied for his third-most as an NHLer – and his overall production of 45 all situations points was down slightly because he wasn’t used quite as much on the power play. The Flames out-scored the opposition 48-33 with Backlund on the ice at five-on-five. He had his best expected goals for per 60 of his career and an expected goals against per 60 roughly in line with his career average. When they were together, Backlund, Mangiapane and Coleman was one of the top possession lines in hockey.
Elias Lindholm was used with Johnny Gaudreau, with the expectation being that his line’s role was to out-score the opposition. (They did that.) Backlund’s line’s role was to wear the opposition down and to shut them down offensively, with scoring considered a bonus. It’s safe to say that the configuration and deployments of those two lines worked quite well, with a bit of rough puck luck being all that stopped the Backlund line from scoring more than they did – their possession numbers were generally very good.
In short: Backlund was Backlund over the past season, a reliable, savvy two-way Swede that helped the Flames operate the way the coaching staff hoped they would.
In an ideal world, the Flames would have a centre with the offensive skills to push Backlund down to third in the rotation. Right now, they don’t have that, and Backlund is second in line almost by default.
Backlund turned 33 in March and has two seasons remaining at a deal that pays him $5.35 million per season against the salary cap. It’s a bit hefty for his offensive contributions, but his two-way play enables a ton of other players’ successes. It’s a cap hit the Flames can easily swallow right now, but if he’s destined to stick around past his current deal, he’ll likely be taking a pay cut of some kind. As we stand in the 2022 off-season, Backlund is the longest-tenured current Flame and third all-time in games played.
Quibbles about his compensation and offensive totals aside, Backlund has been incredibly consistent for the Flames over the years. His savvy has enabled the development of Tkachuk and Mangiapane into really good NHLers, and perhaps we’ll see the likes of Jakob Pelletier given time on his wing to develop in the near future.
2021-22 Flames player evaluations
Johnny Gaudreau | Calle Jarnkrok | Matthew Tkachuk | Trevor Lewis | Jacob Markstrom | Dillon Dube | Elias Lindholm | Chris Tanev | Adam Ruzicka | Milan Lucic | Andrew Mangiapane | Tyler Toffoli | Dan Vladar | Rasmus Andersson | Brett Ritchie | Oliver Kylington | Noah Hanifin | Nikita Zadorov | Michael Stone | Blake Coleman | Sean Monahan
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