I’ve been intrigued by the possibility of Mikael Backlund and Jonathan Huberdeau on a line together since the latter returned to game action last week. Initially I felt the idea had a decent chance of being a long-term fit. That feeling has only grown in the four games they’ve played together at five-on-five. As the Flames continue to figure out optimal forward lines, I think they might have found something.
“Chemistry” in the NHL is a fickle thing that often times defies what we think we know. Sometimes players who seem like perfect fits don’t end up finding it. And sometimes things just click with combinations that don’t seem as obvious. So far, Huberdeau on a line with Backlund has worked well, albeit with a small sample size. All five-on-five metrics courtesy Natural Stat Trick.
Across the board, Huberdeau’s best centre fit thus far has been Backlund and it’s not really close. So as much as I was preaching patience a few weeks ago when Huberdeau was playing with Lindholm and Tyler Toffoli, now that things have changed, I can’t deny the early results.
And it’s not like Backlund has never succeeded with good, skilled players. Prior to last year’s offensive explosion, Matthew Tkachuk’s best five-on-five season came on Backlund’s wing in 2018-19. Tkachuk was on the ice with Backlund for 15 of his 17 five-on-five goals that season in a year those two formed one of the league’s most dominant two-way forward duos.
I’d also like to push back on a narrative I don’t agree with. There’s an opinion held by some that playing with Backlund relegates Huberdeau to Calgary’s third line. But if you look at how head coach Darryl Sutter has rolled out his centres this year, that’s not accurate. In fact, Backlund, Kadri, and Lindholm are playing almost identical amounts at five-on-five right now.
In Monday’s 5-2 win over Philadelphia, for instance, the trio of Backlund, Huberdeau, and Blake Coleman was undoubtedly used as the top line. Backlund led all Flames forwards in the win with 15:25 of five-on-five ice time, of which 11:48 was spent with Huberdeau. Plus, with Huberdeau being a fixture on Calgary’s top powerplay unit, he’s going to get more than enough minutes and offensive touches.
Furthermore, let’s not forget how Huberdeau was used last season in Florida en route to 115 points. At five-on-five, Huberdeau spent the majority of his time five-on-five playing with Sam Bennett and Anthony Duclair on what was the Panthers’ second line. In fact, Huberdeau wasn’t even ranked in Florida’s top six forwards for five-on-five ice time per game. Not having Huberdeau in a defined “first line” role isn’t a bad thing, especially on a Flames team with a very undefined top six to nine forwards.
And finally, there’s the world famous “Backlund Bump.” Calgary’s longest tenured player has a proven history of making those around him better. Similarly, it’s no coincidence Bennett and Duclair had huge career seasons on a line with someone as gifted as Huberdeau. Both individuals elevate those they play with.
I think this idea of Backlund and Huberdeau together for the long-term has some legs. I’m excited to watch it play out.