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Mikael Backlund remains a problem-solver for the Flames coaching staff

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Photo credit:Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
Ryan Pike
25 days ago
Mikael Backlund made his debut with the Calgary Flames on Jan. 8, 2009. 13 seasons and 839 games later, he remains the longest-tenured member of the current club and third all-time in longevity in franchise history, trailing only Jarome Iginla and Robyn Regehr in that regard.
Backlund has been kept around for as long as he has for one reason: he’s really good at what he does, and what he does is provide stabilizing two-way force for his linemates. And Flames head coach Darryl Sutter is likely banking on that by placing Jonathan Huberdeau on Backlund’s line.
A product of Vasteras, Sweden, Backlund spent the bulk of three seasons in his early 20s learning the two-way NHL game under Darryl’s younger brother, Brent. After his first couple seasons learning the ropes and getting more offensive zone starts than anything else, Backlund’s usage skewed more towards defensive zone starts and increasingly tougher match-ups against top lines. Because of the fundamentals he learned early on, he adjusted and began to excel in the “tough minutes” role.
Backlund’s prowess in such a role led several of his coaches to park players who needed two-way help alongside him. The theory went that because Backlund was so good at 200-foot hockey, it could cover up for any defensive miscues that his linemates may have and allow more offensively-oriented forwards playing with him to have the puck more often as a result. It’s resulted in some of his linemates having career offensive seasons, and his lines consistently ranking among the most stingy lines in hockey.
Among the beneficiaries of the so-called “Backlund bump” over the years have included Roman Cervenka, Lance Bouma and Joe Colborne. Backlund’s also been utilized as a two-way tutor for younger players like Sam Bennett, Matthew Tkachuk and Andrew Mangiapane, helping each player round out their 200-foot game. More recently, last season, Backlund was more or less used as the club’s welcoming committee to help new faces adjust to Sutter’s brand of hockey. Early in their Flames tenures Blake Coleman, Tyler Pitlick and Tyler Toffoli all spent significant stretches with the Swede. (Two of the three players adjusted quite well.)
And that brings us to Huberdeau’s new assignment.
Huberdeau is returning to action on Monday after missing three games with both upper and lower body injuries. While the game before his absence – last Monday against the New York Islanders – was arguably his best as a Flame, so far Huberdeau hasn’t quite lived up to his promise. Huberdeau has the ability to be a really strong puck distributor and he’s a perfectly capable two-way forward, but his bread and butter is his passing and vision. But prior to his injury, he hasn’t seemed comfortable enough within the Flames’ systems to utilize those tools.
Huberdeau’s under contract for eight more seasons. Getting him going is hugely important, but doing so alongside Elias Lindholm is problematic considering how much of the team’s offensive attack flows through Lindholm. If Huberdeau stumbles or falters, it could hamper the team’s most dangerous offensive line. (Heck, that’s already happened to some extent.) So if you’re Sutter, why not entrust Huberdeau’s adjustment within the system to the club’s most historically reliable two-way player? (Trevor Lewis, the third guy on that line, is no slouch either and has a ton of history with Sutter.)
At times before Huberdeau’s injury, it seemed that he was trying to do too much on the ice or gripping the stick a bit too hard. Perhaps he’ll have a new perspective on the Flames’ systems after three games in the press box. But more than anything else, he’ll be playing with a player that may lack elite offensive abilities, but is probably the most reliable two-way presence the club has.
If the idea is to give Huberdeau a bit of a safety net in order to build up his confidence with the puck and within Sutter’s system, there are few better ones to have than Backlund.

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