Last week, Calgary Flames forward Mikael Backlund hit a milestone when he played his 700th career NHL game. Since joining the organization at the 2007 NHL Draft, Backlund has become one of the Flames’ most prominent drafting and development success stories.
Now one of the longest-tenured players in franchise history, let’s ponder: should the Flames retire Mikael Backlund’s number 11 when he ends his playing days?
Backlund made his NHL debut back on Jan. 8, 2009 against the New York Islanders. (He had been in Ottawa representing Sweden at the World Juniors, capturing silver. The Flames decided to bring him to the Western Hockey League, as it was judged that he’d get more playing time with the Kelowna Rockets than with Vasteras of the secondary Swedish league. With the NHL club shorthanded due to injury, he played a game before reporting to Kelowna.)
He became a full-time NHLer in 2010-11 and eventually carved out a niche for himself as a tough-minutes centre, albeit one with fairly limited offensive upside. He finally found his offensive swagger following the 2012-13 lockout and since then has been one of the team’s most important players.
If you’re of the mindset that you have to be a Hall of Fame (or a borderline Hall of Famer) to get your number retired, Backlund probably doesn’t pass that test. He’s among the franchise leaders in longevity – he’s eighth in games played with 701, but should pass Jim Peplinski (711) and Joel Otto (730) this season – and he’ll slot in behind Jarome Iginla, Mark Giordano, Robyn Regehr, Al MacInnis and Theo Fleury. (He’s got three more seasons left on his deal, so he could reel in a few others before all is said and done.)
But if you look at key offensive boxcar statistics, Backlund doesn’t shine as much. He’s 19th in goals, 18th in assists and 20th in points. His next 10 goals will see him pass Willi Plett, Robert Reichel and Tom Lysiak, but barring a massive offensive push he’ll be a strong secondary offensive player all-time.
Where Backlund seems more impressive is in more specific categories. He’s third all-time in shorthanded goals and sixth in game-winners, which paint his scoring prowess in a more strategic light. He’s also arguably neck and neck with Joel Otto as the team’s best all-time two-way forward – all due respect to Craig Conroy and Daymond Langkow, but neither made as big a dent in the Selke races during their time as Flames as Backlund and Otto have.
Ultimately, the Flames are allowed to retire numbers for whatever reasons they feel like. Since 2007, Backlund has developed a strong reputation on and off the ice, and he’s been an important leadership figure during the current era of the club. He’s a borderline candidate right now, but his case will be a lot stronger if the Flames manage to win anything before he retires.