It’s been a gradual climb for Mikael Backlund over his 11-year career. After going 24th overall in the 2007 Entry Draft, he has steadily improved year after year and is now one of the best two-way centres in the NHL. This increase in reliability also comes with more responsibility. The past four seasons have been successful ones for Backlund, but as the Calgary Flames push closer for a Stanley Cup and lengthy playoff runs become an expectation, more is going to be required from him and his second-line mates. In the prime of his career and on a Cup-contending team, now is the time for Backlund to elevate his game to a new level.
Growing His Game
Backlund is building an impressive well-rounded game, and his improved scoring touch around the net has been a significant boost for the Flames. More than a simple willingness to get to the front of the net, he has honed his hands in tight and patented an outside-inside move that defenders have had a hard time stifling. More than just finishing around the net, he has also proven his ability to score from well outside the blue paint, utilizing screens and changing angles on pucks to fool goaltenders from distance. Combine all of this with his proven ability to score on his backhand and he’s got a deep arsenal of goal-scoring potential.
Sweden has been pumping out Selke-nominee calibre players for a long time and Backlund has been a perennial candidate these last four seasons. Awarded to the league’s best defensive forward, the Frank J. Selke Trophy has surprisingly never been taken home by a Swede. Backlund has slowly been inching his way towards becoming the first. As the Flames draw more serious attention, his defensive zone reliability should cast him into the conversation. Responsible play has earned him more time all over the ice, and he is frequently head coach Bill Peters’ first choice over the boards to win defensive zone faceoffs or to start an overtime frame.
We’ve seen the evolution of a leader in Backlund as a Flame. Along with Matthew Tkachuk, Backlund was named as an alternate captain for Flames home games in the 2018-19 season. More than anything, he has developed a determination to win that sets a tone for the rest of the team. He has developed a presence most noticeable late in close games; there is a distinct lack of hesitancy when he steps on the ice in third periods and overtimes. It is recognizable in all great players across any sport—when the game is on the line, certain players decide the outcome. Backlund is graduating into that kind of game-owning player.
What to Expect Next Season
Expect Backlund to take another step forward next season. His improved consistency has come as a blessing for a Flames team often in need of stronger defensive play from their forwards. By and large he has lived up to the increased responsibility, but can he do it next season on a night-in and night-out basis? Over the last four seasons he’s proven that he has all the skills necessary to excel as an elite second-line centre—what will prove most pivotal will be his mental approach every night.
Consistently improving individual performance at the highest level is a hard task to accomplish and Backlund has found himself riding a bit of a plateau the last few seasons. Another season that mirrors that last few would be a relative disappointment from a player poised to take a step forward and lead a team deep into the playoffs. No one is asking him to do it alone, hockey doesn’t work that way, but the 2019-20 season is Backlund’s time to take his game to a new level. Flames fans should have high hopes for what the 30-year-old Swede could bring to their team next season.