This week in Flames: Young players and confidence

Derek Leung

The Flames played three games this week, against three teams in playoff spots. They won all of them.

Remember the start of the season? The team wasn't necessarily winning, but they were giving a good fight every game. After years of lethargic veterans, it was a breath of fresh air. It might have been the best time to be a Flames fan.

It's been usurped.

The Flames have now won five straight games. The last time they had a five game home stand and came away perfect, it was 1997.

Now, this is like, regression to the extreme. Last home stand the Flames were getting shutout all the time and losing seven home games in a row. Now it's swung the other way. Aren't numbers fun?

Regardless, this is probably the best time of the season to be a Flames fan.

There's something for everyone:

  • Those who want to see the team win have to be happy.
  • Those who want to see the team lose in order to acquire a better draft pick... The Flames are 27th in the league, now with the same record as the Panthers, but with more ROWs. They're one point back of the Islanders with two games in hand, but that's still a top five pick, and the next team above them is the Devils with 58 points, so they won't be as easily caught. Besides, there's still lots of time left in the season for the Flames to lose. Enjoy this while you can.
  • And the biggest kicker: it's been YOUNG PLAYERS doing this. Most notably, Mikael Backlund and TJ Brodie.

Mikael Backlund's confidence

There's been a lot of talk as of late about how much more confident Backlund is now. "Backlund wouldn't have tried that move a month ago," "Backlund is really coming into his own," "Mikael, you're playing with so much confidence now. What changed?"

Here's what changed: Sean Monahan got hurt.

I'm not denying that confidence plays a role in Backlund's play. He's flying now, and part of that is due to the fact that he's proven now that he can. Once you've actually seen or done something, it's easier to believe.

But here's the thing: he was always doing that.

Backlund was getting chances at the start of the season, when the team was playing well. But after a 3-2 win over the Kings back in October, the Flames lost big to the Coyotes and Stars by a combined nine goals against, three for.

After that Stars game, Backlund's ice time plummeted to fewer than 10 minutes a game. He was placed on the fourth line with Lance Bouma and Brian McGrattan. Then, after going four games without a point, Backlund was scratched.

He was brought back and played the next four games on the fourth line, again recording no points, because he was on the fourth line. He got a chance the next game - a 4-2 loss to the Avalanche - when he played on a line with Mike Cammalleri and Jiri Hudler. He got two assists.

He played with those same line mates the following game. He had no points. He was back on the fourth line for the next five of seven games.

We're now marking Nov. 30 - a 3-2 win over the Kings - as Backlund's turnaround point. This was the second game Monahan did not play in.

Backlund's ice time in Monahan's last game before his injury was 9:19. Two games later, when Hartley had to play Backlund, because he's a centre, Backlund played 19:14. His linemates were David Jones and Hudler.

That's kind of a step up from Bouma and McGrattan, yeah? Before his turnaround, Hartley had Backlund on the fourth line for nine games, and scratched for one. As soon as Backlund was off the fourth line, he started scoring again.

So yes, confidence does play a role in Backlund's resurgence. BUT - and I want to stress this - HE WAS ALWAYS THIS GOOD.

If you're a poor player, you don't magically start scoring once you're given linemates who can keep up with you. You only do that if you're a good player. And since Backlund escaped the fourth line, he's put up 11 goals and 20 points.

He's gone through a few pointless stretches since, too. But now that Hartley knows what he has - a fact he was forced to recognize when Monahan went down, and Backlund was one of the few centres available to fill in those minutes - he kept playing him in his top line role, and the points came back four games later.

Compare that to his previous four game pointless stretch which landed him on the fourth line and in the press box.

That wasn't Backlund's confidence. That was Hartley.

What about Sven?

I brought this up back when the Flames broadcast was raving over Backlund's newfound confidence:


It goes both ways. If you want to believe that Backlund is where he is now due to confidence and Hartley's trust in him, then you have to believe that a major part of the reason Sven Baertschi was sent down was because Hartley killed his confidence and didn't believe in him. And we saw that with the frequent healthy scratches, even though he wasn't necessarily the worst on the team.

The exact same thing that happened to Backlund happened to Baertschi, in fact. Baertschi scored his second goal of the season in a 4-3 shootout win over the Florida Panthers on Nov. 22. When he didn't score again, his ice time dropped, or he was back in the pressbox before he was finally sent down.

Letting players work through it

What if Hartley just kept playing Backlund and Baertschi? Once he was forced to play Backlund, Backlund thrived, and forced Hartley to continue giving him top line minutes: something he was capable of all along, he just needed his coach to see that.

What if Hartley let Baertschi play through his scoreless slumps? True, Baertschi isn't doing that great in the AHL right now - two goals and six points in 17 games - but what might have happened if Hartley had stopped scratching him and had given him consistent minutes?

Here's what I've been wondering for a while: has Hartley's misuse of both Backlund and Baertschi cost them spots at the Olympics? I don't know how Team Sweden and Switzerland make their decisions, but if Hartley had been giving these two players consistent ice time earlier in the season, they may have had the chance to put themselves on their countries' respective radars during the roster selection process.

With Johan Franzen's injury, there's still a chance for Backlund, even though he isn't on the reserve list (again - maybe he would have been had Hartley not banished him to the fourth line until he was forced not to).

TJ Brodie's confidence

For all the talk against Hartley, he's been doing a great job with Brodie.


Brodie's capable of putting up points, we just haven't seen it yet. I think we're in the process of seeing it now. He's been jumping up into the rush more and more, and his defence hasn't suffered for it. Like Backlund, he's been flying: and it's because his coach has faith in him.

The players either have the talent or they don't. But raw talent isn't a whole lot of good without nurturing. If you show confidence in your players, they'll play with that.

And finally, the Captain

Mark Giordano has been a huge part of this win streak as well, with nine straight games with at least a point, a feat that hasn't been accomplished by a Flames defenceman since Gary Suter did it back in 1993.

Even though Giordano doesn't count as a young player, when I look at the roster and think, "Who's going to be here five years from now?" Gio's one of them. He's probably pretty valuable on the trade market right now, but he's also one of the Flames' best veterans, and a great leader. You don't get to be the unanimous choice to follow up Jarome Iginla without being quality, and he's made a whole other step up this year.

The Flames may not have any truly elite talent in the organization just yet - or maybe they do, who knows - but you don't win with just elite talent. You need depth to back it up. If Backlund, Brodie, and Giordano don't count as elite talent, then they count as incredibly valuable depth the Flames will need to win. That's what we've seen over this past week.

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