We occasionally like to spend time discussing what the Selke, and Norris, award would really look like if voters didn’t used outdated methods to find their winners. Of course, this is all pie in the sky stuff. Hockey and “evolution” are infrequent dance partners. Perhaps one day we’ll get our King-Felix-wins-Cy-Young-with-13-wins moment, but it seems unlikely.
If it were to happen, Mikael Backlund may be the one who wins it.
For too long, coaches of the Flames were too fixated on what Backlund couldn’t or didn’t do. As a first round pick, he was (perhaps rightly) expected to be a #1 center who scored a ton. It wasn’t Backlund’s fault that until the arrival of Sean Monahan, there really wasn’t anyone else around to do the job. So it was foisted upon him at time, and it didn’t go so well. Backlund’s first six full seasons in the NHL never saw him amass 50 points, as well as deal with some serious injury issues. It looked to be that he was a bust.
It took the arrival of Bob Hartley, himself hardly a genius, and further expounded upon by current coach Glen Gulutzan Glenross to really unlock what Backlund is. And that’s one of the league’s best checking/possession centers.
If you’ve been tuning into hockey for the past couple seasons, you’ve probably heard all about the 3M like of Backlund, Michael Frolik, and Matthew Tkachuk. They have been the biggest human shield line in the league. The Flames routinely send this unit out in its own end and against the toughest competition, and they routinely send the play the other way. Over the past three seasons, Backlund is fifth in the league in his relative Corsi. But of all the other players in the top ten, Backlund and his linemates get by far the worst zone starts, barely getting 40% of their shifts to start in the offensive zone. They have the biggest hills to climb, and they climb farther than just about anyone else.
Backlund has also added a scoring touch he didn’t have before. He put up 53 points last year and is on pace to break 50 again this year, with a bit of hustling.
This is the type of player more GMs should be seeking out, or converting underperforming centers to be. When most hockey minds think of a checking center, it’s some mattress like body that wins a lot of draws, blocks a lot of shots, but essentially is a trench for their team. Yes, they’re hard to pass but they’re also hard to move forward off of. Backlund is in the Marcus Kruger school. And there are others out there who could play this role.
Of course, some of this might be a problem for the Flames in the summer, as Backlund goes UFA. At 28, it’ll be his best chance to cash in long-term, and the Flames aren’t swimming in cap space .They can probably hand him most of Matt Stajan’s money that’s coming off the books and think that’s enough, but do they pay him as the #2-3 center that he is? Or the unicorn that he actually is? It’s a decision that’s going to be generating a lot of debate in Calgary, between cleaning the horseshit out of everyone’s boots.
Game #38 Preview