Flames’ Playoff Hopes Rest on Backlund’s Shoulders

It’s been an up and down season for the Calgary Flames. No player on the team has embodied this inconsistency more than the team’s second-line centre, Mikael Backlund. From the start of the season, the long-time Flame struggled to acquire his scoring touch. He appeared unconfident and eventually faced demotions to the third and fourth lines. He was even shifted to the wing in an effort to jump-start his slumping play.

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But over the last three weeks, Backlund has finally re-emerged as his usual self: a scoring second-line centre who holds his own defensively. The Flames need him to sustain this style of play as they head into the critical final stretch of the season.

Mikael Backlund Calgary Flames Playoff Hopes Second Line Centre Scoring Depth
Mikael Backlund, Calgary Flames (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Backlund returned to centre permanently after the NHL All-Star break. At the break, he’d posted just 6 goals and 16 assists for 22 points in 50 games. These were disappointing numbers for the Swedish centreman, who had established high expectations after a 47-point season in 2018-19.

In 11 games since the All-Star break, Backlund has registered 10 points. He now centres the team’s second line with wingers Matthew Tkachuk and Andrew Mangiapane. They have provided a valuable source of secondary scoring for the team during its recent offensive upswing. This included the first career hat trick for Mangiapane in the team’s last game against the Anaheim Ducks.

Flames Finding Offensive Success with Familiar Combinations

Back in November, the Flames simply couldn’t find the back of the net. The first line of Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau, and Elias Lindholm had grown stale, and the bottom three lines weren’t faring any better. The solution for coach Geoff Ward, who had recently taken over following the Bill Peters scandal, was a complete shake-up of the forward lines. This included the move of Backlund to wing and Lindholm to centre. For a time, Backlund filled in on the wing with Monahan and Gaudreau. While he did bring his strong defensive instincts to the line, the trio didn’t click on offense.

The Flames have — for several years now — lacked one legitimate scoring winger for their top-six. However, this observation assumes that Backlund along with Monahan, Gaudreau, Lindholm, and Tkachuk make up the top-six’s remaining five pieces. When Backlund regressed this season, it appeared as though the Flames were also in need of a new second-line centreman behind Monahan on the top line. Lindholm’s move to centre was proposed as the answer to Backlund’s disappointing performance, which left a void in the team’s depth scoring.

Calgary Flames Elias Lindholm Centre Mikael Backlund First Line Sean Monahan Johnny Gaudreau
Calgary Flames forward Elias Lindholm (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Backlund at first embraced his move to the wing, but during the All-Star break he approached coach Ward about returning to his normal position. “After a while, I was getting a little uncomfortable,” he said. “But we were winning and playing well so I didn’t want to say anything. Then, at the break, I told him I wanted to go back to centre” (from ‘Flames’ experiment with Mikael Backlund at wing appears to be over,’ Calgary Sun, 02/04/2020).

For the moment, the coach has returned Backlund to his second-line centre role and Lindholm to the wing on the top line with Monahan and Gaudreau. The move is paying off. In recent weeks, all of the team’s four lines are clicking and contributing offense with a newfound consistency.

Flames’ Backlund Is Regaining His Scoring Touch

Since forming the team’s second line with Tkachuk and Mangiapane, Backlund is finding the scoresheet on a regular basis. Between Feb. 6 and Feb. 13, he had a five-game point streak with four goals and four assists. Those four goals came close to matching the underwhelming six he’d managed in 50 games prior to the All-Star break. He’s chipping in with scoring on special teams as well, which is a promising sign for the traditionally versatile centre.

Backlund’s found chemistry with net-front presence Milan Lucic on the team’s second power play unit, leading to goals in consecutive games on Feb. 8 and Feb. 10. The pair’s NHL ’94-style goal celebration also endears the players to Flames fans.

Perhaps the best indicator of a return to form came last week when Backlund powered his way to a highlight-reel shorthanded goal against the Ducks. The responsible defender is a penalty-kill staple who can usually be counted on for a few shorthanded goals per season.

It’s unrealistic to expect the now 30-year-old Backlund to continue to post offense at a point-per-game pace. But the Flames do need him to be the player they’ve counted on for solid defense as well as 40 or 50 points of secondary scoring. Backlund is integral to the team’s success when he’s engaged at both ends of ice.

Flames’ Playoff Push Relies on Backlund’s Success

General manager Brad Treliving faces complicated decisions as Monday’s NHL trade deadline approaches. Going into Friday’s game against the Boston Bruins, the Flames sit tied in a wild card spot and are looking for a second consecutive win. The team is getting goals from Backlund’s line in addition to contributions from the bottom-six. In short, their offense is looking stronger than at any other time this season. Unfortunately, key injuries to defensemen Mark Giordano and Travis Hamonic have simultaneously led to a weakened defensive corps and several unacceptable losses.

A consistent performance from Backlund is critical for the Flames’ playoff hopes, regardless of whether or not Treliving bolsters his team at the trade deadline. The second line normally matches up against the opponent’s top players, so his defensive game needs to remain especially focused. And, so far, it has. He earned praise for his shutdown game on Feb. 8 against Elias Pettersson of the Vancouver Canucks. He also put up two assists in the game, a 6-2 victory for the Flames. This is what the Flames need from their second-line centre. Without Backlund playing his best two-way game, the Flames can forget about making a serious playoff run this season.