The Mikael Backlund Conundrum


Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

There has been a lot of teeth gnashing in Flamesland these past few weeks over the use, or lack thereof, of the Flames’ 24th overall selection in the 2007 NHL entry draft. Backlund has had a somewhat rocky start to his NHL career, being sent the AHL, banished to the fourth line, and, as we are seeing this season, even being made a healthy scratch.

Seemingly at the start of every season for the past three years, Backlund has been penciled in as a top-six forward for the Flames and even at time as a number one centreman. However, each year so far, this has not happened.

Most obviously, Backlund’s injury problems have prevented him from taking the top-six job and running with it over the past few seasons. A variety of ailments have hindered Backlund including a knee injury last season and a finger injury the season before that.

Backlund’s absence from the lineup has caused many to become impatient with the young swede. Statistically, Backlund’s career has been rather disappointing for a player with clear offensive gifts, netting only 25 goals in 184 career games. That being said, Backlund’s upside is not strictly offensive and evaluating him merely based on points is to miss the point of evaluating Backlund as a player.

This perception – of Backlund and his lack of offensive production –  may be at the heart of some of the problems regarding fans’ expectations for Backlund. Over the past two seasons, the Flames have clearly recognized that Backlund has the potential to be a hard-minutes, two-way centreman. This deployment of Backlund has never been as evident as it has been this year. At even strength, Backlund starts in the offensive zone 41.2% of the time, the lowest amount for any Flames forward.

The Flames clearly trust Backlund in the defensive zone and throughout his young career he has shown flashes of offensive skill and scoring prowess. So, the question becomes, why did Backlund just spend last game against Minnesota lugging two boat anchors named Tim Jackman and Brian McGrattan around the ice?

Throughout the first seven games of this season, which the Flames were 3-2-2, Backlund averaged around 20 minutes of ice a game. Since that time, Backund has watched his ice time dwindle to below 10 minutes a game, including a season low 8:20 minutes against the Red Wings on November 1st. Backlund was eventually made a healthy scratch for the Flames’ loss against the Maple Leafs and as since been used almost exclusively on the teams fourth line with the goon squad.

The rationale for Backlund’s declining ice time is three pronged, the dependence of Joe Colborne, the return of Matt Stajan from injury, and perhaps the unexpected presence Sean Monahan past the nine-game tryout period. I would caution anyone from believing that this problem constitutes an overwhelming depth at centre, simply too many average choices and not enough minutes to distribute equally. The question becomes for Backlund, where else should he go?

Firstly, I am by no means suggesting that Bob Hartley’s deployment of Joe Colborne makes any sense. Colborne has looked good at times and at times like, as Jeremy Wilhelm characterized his skating for instance, a newborn fawn. By all accounts, Colborne is at least treading water and has managed a distinctly unimpressive one goal, three assists, 43.9% raw Corsi, and a -3 Corsi relative through 14 games this season. However, Colborne is undoubtedly guilty of thieving Colborne’s ice this season. The clearest demonstartion of this is the game in which Backlund was a healthy scratch against Toronto, Colborne played an ungodly 23.9 minutes.

This use of Colborne is a little concerning for Backlund because when Colborne was acquired, Brian Burke pledged that Colborne was going to undergo a “religious conversion” into a hard-minutes, bottom six centreman. Currently, this is exactly where Backlund has excelled so far in his career. With Monahan welded to Jiri Hudler and (hopefully) Sven Baertschi and Stajan reliably skating with Glencross and Stempniak, Backlund is a man without a country. Hopefully, Colborne’s emergence does not continue to squeeze Backlund onto the fourth line which is stubbornly populated by bumbling oafs, but that is the topic of another entry altogether.

However, as of last night’s game against the Wild, both of Stajan’s linemates are now injured which will likely cause more uncertainty to the already protean Hartley line combinations. This does not address Backlund’s ice time problems though, as long as Hartley believes that McGrattan and or Jackman have a place in the roster.

If, by some miracle, Hartley was to create a serviceable fourth line with Backlund on it and then roll four lines, that may be a solution to this ice time puzzle. Absent that, what is more likely is some sort of trade or roster move that would free up Backlund for more ice. I personally think that this problem might not have a solution until later in the season when Matt Stajan may be donning different silks. In the meantime, I would far prefer to have Colborne on the fourth line and Backlund seeing 15 minutes plus, if not only on the basis that Backlund has paid his dues and has proven himself worthy of the minutes over the past few seasons.