Unrestricted free agency was just one year away for Mikael Backlund.
All Backlund had to do was ink a contract for one season, and then on July 1, 2016, he would have the freedom to sell his services to any team in the NHL.
Instead, the Calgary Flames centre, a restricted free agent until agreeing to Saturday’s deal, signed for three more campaigns, forgoing a couple of years of UFA status with a deal that averages US$3.575 million.
“I had a feeling they wanted to keep me, and I love everything about Calgary — the fans, the organization, the team …” Backlund said Saturday when reached in Sweden after his new contract as announced. “And right away when I started to think about a contract, I wanted a longer deal — three or four years — to stick around. The team’s on the right path, and I think we’re going to have a winning team,”
“I didn’t think too much about those two UFA years. I just wanted to get a good deal for a few years in Calgary.”
The 26-year-old centre, drafted by the Flames in the first round in 2007, is coming off a season in which he collected 10 goals and 27 points in 52 regular-season games, having missed 29 games due to abdominal surgery. He also netted one goal and one assist in 11 playoff contests.
Backlund’s salary is a substantial bump from the $1.5 million he was paid each of the last two seasons.
But consider what he may have received a year from now.
Just look at the calibre of centres available this summer and who are likely to be UFAs next summer.
Flames GM Brad Treliving certainly has done that homework.
“Here’s a player that would be 27 years old going into the market (in 2016), and he’s a centre, so think about that for a second,” Treliving said. “There are very few 27-year-old centres who are versatile like Mikael is — he makes others better, plays in a top-nine role … Could there be a bigger prize for him (in unrestricted free agency)? Potentially, but I think he was focused on being here and being a Flame.
“It’s funny … as much as he’s still a young player, this guy has been around here for a while. He’s really excited about where we’re going, and he wants to be a part of it.”
He’s part of a strong corps of centres, too.
Along with sophomore 31-goal-scorer Sean Monahan (it’s no coincidence Monahan’s offensive production took off when Backlund returned from injury), 2014 first-rounder Sam Bennett and veteran Matt Stajan, the Flames have legitimate depth up the middle.
“If you’re gonna win in this league, you need depth at centre,” Backlund said. “This season, playing two rounds, that was the best time of my life in the NHL, and I want to be part of that every year. To battle for a playoff spot, we need a deep, strong team, and having those guys is gonna make us a better team.”
“I really like how this starts to set up our middle moving forward — it’s so critical,” Treliving said. “I know people get focused on lines one, two or three, but this is a good player who plays a really important position on both sides of special teams. He can generate offence, but … has embraced playing against top players in a defending role — matching up.
“When you talk about Backs, Mony, Sam, Stajan — and to take it further, (Markus) Granlund, (Bill) Arnold and (Drew) Shore — there’s depth, and I like how it shapes up.”
Although Backlund is no longer the young gun on the club, his prime years are still to come, so both he and the team expect more offensive success from his play.
However, just as important is how over the past couple of seasons he’s come to realize who he is as an NHLer.
“I’m never going to stop trying to be better, do more and be a bigger part of the team,” Backlund said. “Since I got drafted, I said I want to be a No. 1 centre, but I’ve got to look at myself and realize I haven’t scored enough to be a No. 1 centre. I look at myself and know I’m going to push those other guys — that will help us as a team, and try to score more points. But I feel I’ve grown in the defensive zone and all over the ice and am more of a responsible, two-way player than an offensive-skilled guy like I was when I was younger.
“I feel comfortable with my role as second- or third-line guy. I’ll still keep pushing and take as much responsibility, but I feel I’ve found my spot on the team.”
The signing leaves the Flames with forwards Shore, Lance Bouma, Josh Jooris, Paul Byron and Micheal Ferland as remaining RFAs on the big-league roster.
“We’re pecking away,” Treliving said of his collection of players in need of contracts. “There are ebbs and flows, but we’re working at it.”
The NHL entry draft is just one week away, and beyond the first two picks, it’s still not entirely clear who is going to go where. Is Connor McDavid going to be an Oiler? Yes. Is Jack Eichel going to be a Sabre? Also yes.
After that, it’s: Who are the Coyotes taking? Is that going to impact the Leafs’ decision? Who does that leave the Hurricanes with? What about the Devils? Does that mean theFlyers are going to take another defenceman? And on, and on, and on.
By the time you get to the 15th pick, it’s very confusing, and hard to predict. That doesn’t mean people aren’t going to try, though. So, without further delay, here’s who various experts (or not-experts) have the Flames picking, according to their own mock drafts.
(Some of these may not be up to date in regards to the entire first round order, but they are within the first 15 picks, which is all we really care about.)
|MOCK DRAFT||15TH OVERALL SELECTION||POSITION|
|SB Nation||Jeremy Roy||D|
|Torie Peterson||Oliver Kylington||D|
|Aaron Vickers||Nick Merkley||RW|
|Jason Johnson||Thomas Chabot||D|
|Andrew Schopp||Nick Merkley||RW|
|Paul Mawdsley||Jakub Zboril||D|
|Bob McKenzie||Travis Konecny||C|
|Craig Button||Mathew Barzal||C|
|Draft Utopia||Evgeny Svechnikov||LW|
|Today’s Slap Shot||Nick Merkley||RW|
|McKeen’s Hockey||Jakub Zboril||D|
|The Hockey Writers||Nick Merkley||RW|
|Overtime Sports Nation||Travis Konecny||C|
|BSN Denver||Timo Meier||RW|
|My NHL Draft||Jakub Zboril||D|
|Draft Analysis||Jeremy Roy||D|
|Forever BeLeafing||Kyle Connor||LW|
|USA Today Sports||Thomas Chabot||D|
|Hockey’s Future||Nick Merkley||RW|
|Draft Site||Travis Konecny||C|
|Damien Cox||Travis Konecny||RW|
|The Sports Bank||Timo Meier||RW|
|Nice Skates, Wanna Puck?||Colin White||C|
Considering the Flames’ needs – defence and right wing – it’s not surprising to see a lot of people have Calgary taking someone at one of those positions. Some of these picks hinge on players going later than expected – Barzal especially, and it would be a dream if he fell to 15th – but for the most part, there’s a good, healthy mix of guys who could all be available.