The Calgary Flames did not have many strong individual performances this season. In fact, they probably had more poor performances than they did good.
That being said, Tyler Toffoli’s campaign was one to remember as he led the Flames in goals and points to set a new career-high in his early 30s. You could look at some of the other younger players, like Walker Duehr and Adam Ruzicka, who shone in their limited ice time as other bright spots. The rest would be a stretch.
Backlund never relents
This of course excludes the miraculous season that Flames franchise legend Mikael Backlund had. In his 14th season with the team, Backlund played in all 82 games, set a career-high in points, and played in his 900th NHL game becoming the third player in franchise history to do so. He also put forth one of his best defensive seasons of his career, with some pointing towards a potential Selke Trophy nod later in the season.
With Tuesday’s announcement of the Selke Trophy nominees, Backlund was shockingly left off the ballot. Instead, Patrice Bergeron, Nico Hischier, and Mitch Marner were the top three vote getters and will attend the NHL Awards later this spring.
Although all three are worthy nominees, it’s extremely fair to say that Backlund was wrongfully omitted from a top-three spot. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at the numbers.
Mikael Backlund’s 2022–23 Season
At the fine ripe age of 34, Backlund performed well beyond his Flames peers across both ends of the ice. Taking a look at Evolving-Hockey.com‘s Goals Above Replacement model, Backlund excelled.
As a whole, Backlund ranked in the 71st percentile for offence and 84th percentile for defence during the season. His GAR and xGAR at even strength on the defensive end were easily his best attributes this season. Compared to the rest of the league, Backlund was far above-average when it came to his 5v5 play.
When looking at his impacts even further, Backlund was typically on the ice for goals and changes against per 60 minutes of ice time. Again from Evolving-Hockey, here are his regularised adjusted plus-minus results.
Ignoring his offensive numbers for a second, his CA/60 was one of the strongest in the league meaning that Backlund on average suppressed far more opposing scoring chances than he allowed. This also came with Backlund having possession of the puck far more often per game, and generating more chances and goals on the offensive end.
Now factor in his offensive numbers and they paint an even better picture. Backlund simply made the Flames a better team.
Taking a look at the team’s impacts with and without him, it’s quite glaring. Here are the Flames’ 5v5 results from HockeyViz.com.
When Backlund took the ice for the Flames, the team had an xGF/60 that was 19% better and an xGA/60 that was 13% better. Essentially, with Backlund on at 5v5 the Flames defended better and were able to generate greater amount of chances.
This team would have been dead in the water without him.
Comparing Backlund to the nominees
As we said, Bergeron, Hischier, and Marner are all extremely deserving candidates. They all had amazing seasons—and all with very successful teams to boot. It’s not surprising that voters sided with them, as team success is often driven by individual performances.
When comparing the three to Backlund though it does put his ranking into a bit of a question mark:
Bergeron is the clear front runner, and should most likely win based on his and the Bruins season (excluding the playoffs). His numbers are—and continue to be—off the charts.
For Hischier and Marner, their seasons were equally as impressive but more of their contributions came on the offensive end of the ice. Both of their GF/60 were better than Backlund’s, but Backlund performed better in some categories compared to the two. For example, Marner’s xGF/60 wasn’t as incredible as his other metrics, but Backlund’s stood far above that level.
It’s hard to compare apples to apples when looking at these charts, but take a look at the complete defensive performance by all players and it’s possible that Backlund could have sneaked into the top three over Hischier. Had Backlund been on the ice for just a few more goals, the Flames might have been in the playoffs and Backlund might have gotten the Selke nomination.
Maybe next year
Backlund continues to defy the aging curve in the NHL, so it’s not wise to say that his Selke chances are over. However, they should have been recognized this season. Alas, they were not.
It’s more likely than not that Backlund is sitting in the top five of voting and just missed out on being nominated in the top three. As long as he eventually will get some top place votes from those submitting nominations will be a step in the right direction. Bergeron is older and still winning trophies, if this was his last year then it’s possible Backlund still has a chance.
Until then, it’s time we show even more love to #11.