Flames’ Backlund Has Defined Career Through Two-Way Play

On Wednesday night, Calgary Flames forward Mikael Backlund played in his 804th game with the team, surpassing Al MacInnis for most games played all-time by a Flames’ draft pick. It also moved him into fourth overall and if he plays out his contract, he could end up finishing second in franchise history. Being a general manager (GM) turned out not to be one of Darryl Sutter’s strong suits, however, drafting Backlund may have been one of his best moments.

Backlund has been arguably the Flames’ best defensive forward for the better part of a decade. He and former teammate Michael Frolik had incredible chemistry that made them a great shutdown line no matter who was on it. He has been consistently good for the team in a shutdown role and adding much-needed secondary scoring at times. His tenure in Calgary will surely be solidified as one of the best as he moved to 804 games in the ‘Flaming C’.

Backlund has been A Solid Two-Way Player from the Beginning

After being drafted in 2007, Backlund played in Sweden until the 2008-09 season when after he posted seven points in six games at the 2009 World Juniors, he earned one game with the Flames. After an eight-minute stint in the NHL, he was loaned to the Kelowna Rockets of the Western Hockey League (WHL), where he scored 12 goals and 30 points in 28 games. He also recorded 23 points in 19 playoffs games and four points in four games at the Memorial Cup before losing in the final to the powerhouse Windsor Spitfires.

Blake Wheeler Mikael Backlund
Mikael Backlund of the Calgary Flames and Blake Wheeler of the Winnipeg Jets face off (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images)

After a 54 game stint in 2009-10 with the Abbotsford Heat of the American Hockey League (AHL), Backlund earned his final call to the big club and never looked back. In his first full season in 2010-11, he played with several different wingers but played the most with Alex Tanguay and Jarome Iginla. In the 106 minutes they played together, the trio had 61 percent expected goals for percentage (xGF%), 70 percent goals for percentage (GF%) and 61.4 percent Corsi for (CF%) which was first in all three categories on the team.

The next three seasons following his rookie campaign from 2011-12 to 2013-14, Backlund was already being used in tough matchups for the Flames. In those seasons, he saw the most ice-time against players like Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski, Patrick Kane and Ryan Kesler. When Backlund was not on the ice against those four players, the Flames had a worse CF% and scoring chance for percentage when facing those players. Looking back in the stat books, Backlund was an immediate help defensively for Calgary.

Backlund, Tkachuk, Frolik Became a Staple for the Flames

After several dismal seasons for the Flames and many different wingers for Backlund, one of the team’s best defensive lines in recent memory started to take shape. The team signed Frolik in the summer of 2015 and the duo started to build chemistry right off the hop. Then in the 2016-17 season, Matthew Tkachuk entered the league and played alongside the two for the better part of three seasons.

The trio’s best season came in 2018-19 when their 59.1 CF%, 67.4 GF% and 57.2 xGF% ranked sixth, sixth and 21st in the NHL respectively among lines who played more than 200 minutes together. That season Backlund put up his second-best career point total, Tkachuk smashed his previous high of 49 with 77 points and while Frolik missed 22 games, he was on pace for 53 points, which would have been a career-high as well.

Calgary Flames Mikael Backlund Los Angeles Kings Matt Roy
Calgary Flames center Mikael Backlund shoots around Los Angeles Kings defenseman Matt Roy (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)

The trio was steady for the team as soon as they were put together and it may have helped turn Tkachuk into the dominant first-line player that he is today. Now, Backlund has a new set of wingers and has just continued to be a major presence for the Flames in 2021-22.

Backlund Solid Defensively in 2021-22

This past offseason, the Flames went out and signed Blake Coleman to a long-term contract and he was easily the perfect fit to play alongside Backlund since Frolik had been traded. Coleman was known for his terrific two-way play in Tampa Bay and this season he has delivered just that. Their line along with Andrew Mangiapane has not only been the second-best on the team but the third-best line in the NHL in terms of xGF%. Among forward lines that have played over 200 minutes together, their line’s stats of 63.6% xGF%, 62.4 CF% and 71.4 GF% rank third, second and seventh respectively across the entire NHL.

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While Backlund isn’t quite producing points at the rate that he was in the past, he is still being relied upon by Sutter for those heavy matchups against top lines across the league. The three players he’s faced the most this season are, Troy Terry, Connor McDavid and Leon Driasaitl. Amongst those three players xGF% and CF% when on the ice against Backlund, only McDavid has a CF% above 50 percent (54.05 CF%). If numbers aren’t your thing, this essentially means that Backlund was a big part of shutting those three and other teams’ top players down, and he’s been very successful at it.

This season, Backlund sits third on the Flames with 38 takeaways which is 50th in the NHL. Between him, Mangiapane, and Coleman, they have a combined 110 takeaways in 60 games. Since Backlund’s rookie season in 2010-11, only six players have more takeaways than him, as he has 638 in 780 games. While he is approaching the later stages of his career, management has been able to find wingers for him that have helped him in his two-way duties.

One of the Flames’ Best Draft Picks in the 21st Century

Calgary’s drafting history from the first round of the 2000 Draft until the fourth round of the 2011 Draft has been pretty bleak. Of the 103 draft picks the Flames have made from 2000 to 2012, only 11 of them have played more than 200 games for the team. Only Backlund, Johnny Gaudreau and T.J. Brodie have played over 500 in a Flames sweater. As Backlund now moves into sole possession of most games played by a Flames’ draft pick, he has solidified himself as one of the team’s best draft picks in the 21st century.

Mikael Backlund Calgary Flames
Mikael Backlund, Calgary Flames (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

This season, Backlund is putting up some of the best underlying numbers of his career and sits in the top five among Flames forwards in CF% (57.64), xGF% (56.69) and GF% (60.38). Trevor Lewis has been a new addition alongside Backlund and Coleman, but once playoffs come around, Sutter should think about putting Mangiapane back on that line. With two years left on his contract, Backlund looks like he has more to give for Calgary if they can keep the band together beyond this season.

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