Shortly after their post-season exit interviews both Mikael Backlund and Elias Lindholm were asked if they would consider contract extensions past the 2023-24 season when they are set to become unrestricted free agents (UFA). Interestingly, each of them had similar answers to the same question.
Backlund took his time before answering with obviously carefully chosen words “Ah, it’s kind of…we’ll see what happens,” said the Flames veteran. “I’ve been here a long time, and I love Calgary, and I love this organization…but…the year we had…I’m 34 years old. I want to win the Stanley Cup. I don’t know, this summer, what’s going to happen, or even if they offer us, or me, anything. I might want to see what this group can do before I make a decision.”
Lindholm was a little more succinct with his response when he said, “We’ll see what happens. I’ve got one more year, and I kind of look at it that way. I’ve got one more year, and that’s all I can say.”
Basically, they were both saying they had plenty of time and were adopting a wait-and-see approach. Both of these interviews occurred before the dismissal of head coach Darryl Sutter. Flames’ president of hockey operations and interim general manager (GM) Don Maloney has since gone on record as saying, “I don’t feel like this roster needs a major overhaul.”
At the same time, he did acknowledge that they needed to be younger and faster. Of course, both the new GM and head coach might have different ideas, but it doesn’t sound like the organization has much of an appetite for wholesale changes to the core group of players. Both Backlund and Lindholm are undoubtedly considered to be a part of this core.
Originally drafted 24th overall by the Flames in the first round of the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, “Backs,” as he is affectionately called by his teammates, is the longest-tenured active player on the Flames’ roster. Other than some injury issues earlier in his career, Backlund has remained pretty consistent. He plays a complete game and is more often than not tasked with playing against the opposing squad’s best players. He plays in all situations, including the tough minutes killing penalties, and on the team’s second power-play unit. Although he has never won, Backlund is in the “Selke” conversation each year and, in 2017, was a finalist for the prestigious Selke Trophy awarded to the league’s best defensive forward.
This coming season, 2023-24, Backlund will be in the final year of his contract, which carries an average annual value (AAV) of $5.35 million. Although seemingly not showing any signs of slowing down, 2022-23 was his most offensively productive season to date; he will be 35 years old when his current contract expires. Right now, and before the 2023 NHL Entry Draft, his trade value has probably peaked and will most likely decline as the year goes on.
Elias Lindholm was chosen by the Carolina Hurricanes, fifth overall in the first round of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. He spent his first five NHL seasons with the Hurricanes before getting traded to the Flames along with Noah Hanifin in June of 2018. Although a natural centre, he spent his first couple of seasons bouncing between centre and right wing while mostly playing with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan.
As the injury-plagued Monahan slowed down, Lindholm gradually took over first-line centre duties, ending up in 2021-22 flanked by Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk. Lindholm’s increased responsibilities with the Flames have enabled him to realize his potential as a close-to-a-point-per-game player. Like Backlund, he is also very sound and responsible on the defensive side of the puck while playing a complete 200-foot game.
Barring a contract extension, Lindholm is also set to become a UFA on July 1, 2024. With a full year remaining on a very team-friendly contract with an AAV of $4.85 million, it is not inconceivable that the trade return for the 28-year-old would, at the very least, be a top-ten first-round pick.
Flames’ Options With Backlund & Lindholm
Both of these two centres are very valuable and desirable NHL players, albeit at different stages in their careers. Finding quality players who can fill the centre position is, without question, the most difficult task of all. It is also the position where the Flames have almost zero team depth. Not only do they have to solve the quandary they have down the middle with the two Swedes, but they are also likely to lose Trevor Lewis at the same time. They do have Adam Ruzicka and Connor Zary in the pipeline, but they are, at best, bottom-six material. Nazem Kadri might have to be a short-term solution for first-line duties. Also, the problems don’t end there for the Flames, as they are up against the salary cap and have very little room to maneuver.
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It is very probable that the Flames will not be able to retain both Lindholm and Backlund. It may seem to make more sense to trade Backlund and re-sign Lindholm, but this is easier said than done. The reverse could very well be the way to go. Lindholm should bring the Flames greater trade value, and Backlund, due to his age, may just be easier to re-sign for shorter term at less money. This should answer the question of what to do with the two Swedish centres. Either way, the Flames may be a little weaker for a while, but with a couple of astute trades and sound drafting, they will be stronger in the long term.