Mikael Backlund has had a very tumultuous time with the Calgary Flames. Once the only first round draft pick that was showing anything resembling NHL ability, he was placed on the fourth line, bottom six, with only flashes of playing time with high end players. He just couldn't seem to score, but he could do absolutely everything else.
That all changed in January 2014 when Bob Hartley, out of options, needed a centre. Backlund was rescued from the fourth line, placed in the top six, given NHL-level wingers, and finally, finally started scoring.
He hasn't looked back since. Backlund was injured courtesy of an abdominal strain to start the 2014-15 season, but when he came back halfway through, he was one of the team's top centres, and one of their top forwards. He didn't get the attention the top line did, but he made everyone's lives easier by handling the most difficult starts on the team. High quality opponents and high defensive zone starts were his bread and butter, allowing the top line to go to work and sheltering the rookies so they wouldn't be overwhelmed.
The longest-tenured of all Flames prospects, Backlund finally got to play in the playoffs. His first playoff goal - an overtime winner in the second round - was incredible, and the final game winning goal of the Flames' season. Sam Bennett will eventually take his spot as a top six centre, but in the meantime, the two worked wonderfully together on the same line.
Backlund as a third line centre - which is what will probably end up happening in the near future - shows exceptional centre depth, and will be of great benefit for the Flames.
In the meantime, he's a top six guy, and one of their best. Our thoughts and grades:
Mikael Backlund is never going to be relied on for offence. He can score, but he’s never going to be one of the big guys for the Flames, and that’s just fine. Because there’s a lot more to hockey than scoring, and Backlund fulfills every other role to a tee. He’s a strong possession player, and outstanding defensively. He may very well have been the Flames’ best forward throughout the 2014-15 season.
Backlund took the hardest minutes, playing against top competition and taking frequent defensive zone starts, and performing well all the while. This allowed the many, many rookies in the Flames’ lineup throughout the season easier circumstances to play in, which gave them a chance to succeed. Backlund didn’t need favourable circumstances to succeed, though. He can play in any situation, and play really, really well.
Mike FAIL (B+):
Giving Backlund a B+ was probably the one grade I wrestled the hardest with. I’ve written a handful of articles this season about why he is so important. It’s undeniable how crucial he is to the team on the ice, facing some, if not the hardest, competition at times. He is criticized much too often for not scoring but his game is silently effective. He does so many little things out there that go unnoticed until you rewatch the play. He is pretty much everything you can ask for in a shutdown centre.
Despite giving Sean Monahan an ‘A’ make no mistake: Mikael Backlund is this team’s best centre. Re-sign him, keep him, and treasure him. My only criticism is shot quality. The guy needs to find it and the production will improve.
Too often in the analytics community people have a tendency to strictly look at the possession stats and ignore other data. This is particularly true with forwards more so than defensemen where scoring carries over at a much higher rate than their blueline counterparts. This is partially true with Backlund.
Backlund was a possession force to be reckoned with this season while points weren’t quite up to first line quality. Still, Backlund was a solid second line-quality center that played numerous roles for the team. Sean Monahan passed him on the depth chart (and for good reason given his production), but the difference between having Markus Granlund in versus Backlund was night and day.
Backlund won’t be the top center on the team next year - that distinction will once again go to Monahan. Depending on how the team sees Sam Bennett he might not even be the second. He’ll also get plenty of minutes on the penalty kill and some other chances on the power play. The sudden depth at center is a fantastic problem to have considering it was a question only a year ago.
Backlund tries. Hard. And he’s extremely skilled in the circumstances he’s been put in, as a shutdown center. It’s also easy to see his impact on the linemates he’s given as well, as there was noticeable improvement in the play and production of David Jones and Lance Bouma when the ultimate shutdown line was formed. The only negative with Backs was his points production. Whether it be bad luck or maybe his sniping skills aren’t quite there yet, hopefully he’s able to produce more next season.
He’s often overshadowed by everyone else, but Backlund is arguably Calgary’s most important centre. Not their best centre - that distinction goes to Sean Monahan - but if the Flames want to successfully complete their rebuild, Backlund is key. He’s one of the only players on this depth-forsaken roster that makes nearly everyone better when he plays with them. Losing him would essentially mean losing a whole line.
People are impressed with Bouma and Jones’ improvement from last season, but they often forget who’s playing between them. Backlund is the king of zone entries and penalty killing. While he isn’t a points producer, he creates plays either directly or indirectly, as studied with Bouma.
It’s hard to fault Backlund, really. He works hard, he creates chances, and he drags the performances of everyone around him up a level. He just needs a bit more luck. He creates so much but doesn’t have a great point production. If he can get a few more shots hitting twine rather than jersey, then he’ll become the elite player that the rest of his work deserves.
The good: Mikael Backlund is a solid two-way forward with goal-scoring ability. At 5v5 this season, the majority of his shift starts were in the defensive zone, yet he still drove possession relative to his teammates. According to the war-on-ice definition of scoring chance, Backlund was the top Flames forward (after Josh Jooris of all players) in scoring chance for percentage at 47.8%. This is to say that when Backlund was on the ice, the Flames were getting 47.8% of the scoring chances.
The bad: Mikael Backlund struggled mightily on the powerplay this season. In 83 minutes of 5v4 time with Backlund on the ice, the Calgary Flames only scored 3 goals. This was good for the worst goals per 60 minutes of any of the Flames regulars on the powerplay.
We clearly all think rather highly of Backlund here, and have collective given him an A- in response to his season. The Flames were noticeably better with him on the ice, and he's absolutely an asset to this team.
The bad: he doesn't score enough.
The good: everything else.
He's irreplaceable at this point, and we're hoping he gets locked up long-term, because he's earned it. Even when you ignore all of his stats he's the epitome of a character guy, absolutely devoted to this organization and desperate to win. That's the kind of guy you want in your lineup; the fact that he's pretty good at hockey cements it.