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ONE OF THE BEST

Think Mikael Backlund is one of the Flames' top forwards? Delve a little deeper and it is easy to see he's one of the league's top pivots

by ARI YANOVER @NHLFlames / CalgaryFlames.com

Mikael Backlund is good at hockey.

Like, really good.

If you've been paying attention the past couple of seasons, that statement won't come as much of a surprise. He's already back at it again this campaign: two goals, an assist, and a 54.35% Corsi-for rating, according to Corsica.hockey.

That puts him second on the Flames, right in between his linemates, Matthew Tkachuk and Michael Frolik. Though the season is still young, the 3M Line has already put together a 55.46% CF - one of the best lines of 2017-18 so far, all while being buried in defensive zone starts most other top lines don't even come close to seeing.

It's kind of what Backlund does. He takes the toughest assignments on his team, and he spins them into gold.

Backlund's rise to prominence became especially pronounced last season, his first-ever 50-point year and a fourth-pace finish for the Selke Trophy having a fair bit to do with it.

"Well, it's a cool thing, always had a goal to reach 50 points and I was happy I did it," Backlund said. "When the team plays well usually you play well yourself, too, so it usually goes hand in hand. 

"But, of course, I put team goals first."

Defensive forwards don't typically get the glory. They're necessary to a team's success - not every line can be a scoring one, and someone has to take responsibility for the other team's top players - but a great back-check will almost never get as much attention as a great goal.

One could make a pretty sound argument that the 3M Line, first assembled in 2016-17, was the best line in the NHL last season.

With a 57.39% CF, it was the third best trio among lines that played at least 500 5v5 minutes together - with 34.93% offensive zone starts. They were one of the least-sheltered lines in the entire league, and yet they were one of the very best when it came to creating more offence than allowing against them, even though they started from a place of severe disadvantage.

Only Backlund's expertise at this level didn't start with his linemates. It started with him.

Consider this: only once in his career, ever, has Backlund been a sub-50% CF player (back in the 2014-15 season). He has always boasted a positive relative CF%, meaning the Flames have always performed better when he is on the ice than when he isn't, on average by 5-6 points. 

This is all while he has started more shifts in the defensive zone than the offensive one. The only times the opposite was true - the only times he's been relatively sheltered - were in his first two seasons in the NHL, when he was still learning the ropes.

Since the 2011-12 season, Backlund has been a player the Flames have been able to count on to take defensive zone starts, and still beat the other team anyway. 

When it comes to players like that, names such as Patrice Bergeron, Anze Kopitar, and Jonathan Toews come to mind. All three are Selke winners, and with the amount of times he's won it, it could be renamed the Bergeron Trophy.

Since 2011-12, Backlund has outperformed both Kopitar and Toews in terms of raw defensive prowess. The scoring has come a little later, but Backlund's relative CF of 5.33% is above Kopitar's 3.77% and Toews' 3.34%. He's had far rougher zone starts, too: 42.55%, while Kopitar and Toews have been relatively sheltered at 52.51% and 57.89%, respectively.

Bergeron's numbers have been outstanding, but Backlund can compete with him. Bergeron's relative CF over those years has been 8.55%, and his zone starts ratio 46.53.

If we look at just 2016-17, though, the numbers get a lot more interesting. Bergeron is still above Backlund - a 61.14% CF compared to Backlund's 54.71%, +8.91% relative compared to Backlund's +5.76% - but context is key.

In 2016-17, Bergeron had a zone start ratio of 54.47%. Kopitar (51.79%) and Toews (54.51%) were up there with him, too.

Backlund's zone start ratio clocked in at a mere 35.71% - significantly less than the other three, all the while still beating out two players and coming close to contending with the perennial Selke winner himself.

So what's changed in the past couple of years that Backlund has only just now risen to a more mainstream elite presence?

"I think it's just taking a bigger step on and off the ice, taking on a bigger role on this team," Backlund said. "Mentally, I've been growing over the years, becoming mentally stronger, and just the way I prepare myself and all that, I just take it to another level. 

"It comes with age and growth and playing in this league and all that, and working on that of course off ice, too. I think definitely growing mentally over the years here."

Video: Mikael Backlund's best plays from the 2016-17 season

The numbers certainly match a player that has only gotten stronger as the seasons have gone on, in all aspects of professional sports.

The past two seasons, Backlund's Corsi-for per 60 (CF/60) is the highest it has ever been since his first two seasons in the NHL - the years when he was getting more offensive zone starts. His offensive presence has grown, from the back-to-back 20-goal seasons he's now scored, to hitting a CF/60 above 60 points for the first time since becoming a heavy zone starts player.

But that jump in scoring doesn't mean Backlund let his defensive responsibilities fall by the wayside. In his first two sheltered seasons, his Corsi-against per 60 (CA/60) stayed under 50. He hasn't been able to get there just yet, but in 2016-17, he got much closer to those numbers: 50.83.

"I've seen the numbers," Backlund said. "But through the season I don't look too often into it. But I'm aware of it, but I don't dig too deep into it."

With the way he's played his entire career, there's absolutely no reason to think he can't keep it going.

After all, it's all he's ever done.

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