Mikael Backlund

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Flames extend analytics darling Mikael Backlund

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Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

The line of Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Micheal Ferland (Ferland for now?) probably ranks as the Calgary Flames’ most important forward trio. If you spend a little time on Hockey Twitter, you’ll probably come across someone gushing about “The 3M Line,” maybe more than the bigger guns.

(Aside: I really tried to get a Campbell’s Soup-inspired nickname for that line, but it never took off. Probably for the greater good?)

With the trade deadline looming, the Flames took a big step toward keeping that line intact, signing underrated center Mikael Backlund to a six-year, $32.1 million contract extension. He’ll go from carrying a $3.575M cap hit in the final year of his current deal to $5.35M from 2018-19 through 2023-24.

This keeps “The 3M Line” together through 2018-19, assuming the team doesn’t want to split them up at some point.

The most infamous member of the trio is the least tenured of the three: Matthew Tkachuk will see his rookie contract expire after 2018-19. Michael Frolik, meanwhile, receives $4.3M per season through 2019-20. Tkachuk isn’t likely to go anywhere, mind you, but his inevitable raise could make it tough to keep all three of those puck-hogging forwards on the same roster that also boasts Gaudreau, Monahan, and pricey blueliners like Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton.

Backlund, 28 (soon to be 29 as of March 17), is a solid piece even if you look at his scoring stats alone. The 24th pick of the 2007 NHL Draft is trying to make this his third consecutive 20-goal season, although he’s been limited to 10 in 58 games. (He’s made up the difference with 24 assists.)

If you look at his possession metrics, you’ll see that Backlund consistently tilts the ice in his team’s favor, even with heavy-to-drastic defensive usage.

Ultimately, he brings a nice mix of the subtle stuff that might slip under the radar:

With enough scoring punch that he jumps off the charts even when you’re not, well, looking at charts.

Naturally, this is an expensive contract, so there’s some risk involved. Even so, most seem happy with the deal from the Flames’ end:

If you take a look at their salary structure, there’s really a lot to like in Calgary. Now the Flames need to start putting it all together on the ice.

Once that really starts to build momentum, Backlund could be the sort of player who really makes the difference in a tough playoff series. That’s what the Flames are paying him for, really.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

The Buzzer: Shutouts, a hat trick and Vegas keeps rolling

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Players of the Night

Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens: In his first start since Nov. 2 Price stopped all 36 shots he faced from the Buffalo Sabres during a 3-0 victory. The shutout was the 40th of his career and first this season to help the Habs end a five-game losing skid. Price is now the fourth goalie in Canadiens history to record 40 shutouts.

Martin Jones, San Jose Sharks: Jones recorded his second shutout of the season and 17th of his career as the Sharks blanked the Winnipeg Jets 4-0. Logan Couture scored twice and Jones made 38 saves, including 29 over the final 40 minutes, in the victory.

Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals: Ovechkin had a special night and created one for a fan as his hat trick, which tied Pavel Bure for most in NHL history by a Russian-born player, powered the Capitals by the Toronto Maple Leafs 4-2. Before the game, Ovechkin met Alex Luey, a 13-year-old bone cancer survivor, and the Washington captain delivered on a promise to score and created a memory for a lifetime.

Highlight of the NightNot going to beat what Ovi did, so here’s runner-up Brendan Perlini providing a highlight for the Coyotes:

MISC:

Brian Gibbonstremendous season continued as he potted his 11th of the season 2:32 into overtime to give the New Jersey Devils a 4-3 win over the Detroit Red Wings.

Jaroslav Halak made 31 saves and Anders Lee and Jordan Eberle provided the goals as the New York Islanders edged the Ottawa Senators 2-1 for their sixth win in seven games. Matt Duchene scored his first goal with the Senators in the loss.

Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel each scored twice to power the Pittsburgh Penguins by the Tampa Bay Lightning 5-2. Kessel also added two assists for a four-point night, while the Penguins captain had a helper of his own to finish with three points on the evening.

Chris Kunitz returned to Pittsburgh for the first time since signing with the Lightning and received his 2017 Stanley Cup before the game:

Corey Crawford’s great season continued as his 37 saves and three points from captain Jonathan Toews helped the Chicago Blackhawks down the Florida Panthers 4-1.

• Oh, look, another night, and some more goals from Jaden Schwartz, whose pair helped the St. Louis Blues double up the Minnesota Wild 6-3. The Blues lead the NHL in points with 35 through 24 games and are tied for third in scoring with 84 goals.

William Karlsson potted his 13th of the season as the Vegas Golden Knights won their fifth in a row by defeating the Arizona Coyotes 4-2. Jonathan Marchessault ended the night with a goal and two assists.

David Rittich recorded his first NHL win with 24 stops during a 3-2 win over the Colorado Avalanche. Micheal Ferland and Mikael Backlund scored 22 seconds apart in the final minute of the second period to snap a 1-1 deadlock.

Trevor Lewis‘ goal in the fourth round of the shootout was the difference as the Los Angeles Kings beat the Anaheim Ducks 2-1. Anaheim was 1:32 from clinching a 1-0 win when Dustin Brown scored his ninth of the season to send the game to overtime. Jonathan Quick made 25 saves in overtime and regulation.

Kevin Bieksa brought out the Superman punch again, as Andy Andreoff found out:

Factoid of the Night:

Scores:
Capitals 4, Maple Leafs 2
Canadiens 3, Sabres 0
Islanders 2, Senators 1
Devils 4, Red Wings 3 (OT)
Blackhawks 4, Panthers 1
Penguins 5, Lightning 2
Golden Knights 4, Coyotes 2
Blues 6, Wild 3
Flames 3, Avalanche 2
Sharks 4, Jets 0
Kings 2, Ducks 1 (SO)

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

PHT Morning Skate: Do the Blues have the best first line in hockey?

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–Avalanche rookie Alex Kerfoot had an interesting Wednesday in Sweden, as he had an allergic reaction to something he ate in a small cafe. To make matters worse, he didn’t have his phone to contact anyone from the team, so he just went straight to a hospital. (NHL.com)

–The 2022 Beijing Olympics will be held in China, and the NHL is doing everything it can to grow the game in that market. There have been exhibition games there and teams have held youth and coaching seminars there, too. (NBCNews.com)

–Some Canadian filmmakers got an opportunity to take a deeper look at the North Korean National Team. Let’s just say their equipment and training methods are a little outdated though. (New York Times)

–Flames center Mikael Backlund is making just over $3.5 million in the final year of his contract. Calgary would like to keep him around, but they’re going to have to shell out a lot more money to lock him up. (The Hockey Writers)

–There have been rumblings about the availability of Oliver Ekman-Larsson via trade, but GM John Chayka made sure to set the record straight during a radio interview earlier this week. It doesn’t sound like the blue liner is going anywhere. (arizonasports.com)

Nathan MacKinnon hasn’t put up the numbers everyone expected him to over the last couple of years, but BSN Denver argues that he’s a much better player than most people think. (BSN Denver)

–Light House Hockey takes an in-depth look at a shift that got Josh Ho-Sang benched for a long time. After watching this, you’ll be able to understand why head coach Doug Weight has been frustrated with him. (Light House Hockey)

–A lot of people expected Mikhail Sergachev to stick with the Lightning this year, but there weren’t many who believed he’d have this kind of impact on the team in 2017-18. (Tampa Bay Times)

–There are a number of quality first lines in the NHL. When you break them all down, the Blues top trio of Brayden Schenn, Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko might just be the best one in the league right now. (St. Louis Game Time)

–You may or may not have seen a photo of Islanders goalie Billy Smith sitting next to a pond (with all his equipment on) in the early 80’s. Well, many years later, The Score got the story behind this incredibly weird shoot. (The Score)

–Sabres goalie Robin Lehner will be honoring fallen K-9 officer Craig Lehner prior to Friday’s game. The netminder will wear a jersey with a C. Lehner nameplate during the warmup. Instead of wearing his usual number 40, Lehner will have number 43 on the back (the officer’s radio call sign). (Buffalo News)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

How should Flames use Jaromir Jagr?

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After an anxious summer where Jaromir Jagr got kind of weird about not getting a deal on Twitter, the Calgary Flames provided the hockey world with relief in signing the living legend.

It’s something we should all cherish, too, as Jagr admitted that there’s a “99.9 percent chance” that this will be his last season, according to Sportsnet’s Roger Millions.

Even at 45, Jagr still could conceivably benefit the Flames. As GM Brad Treliving said, Jagr still has the ability to snag the puck beyond the blueline, and he can still make plays.

Let’s have a little fun with this, then, and ponder the scenarios where the Flames can get the most out of Jagr (and vice versa).

Jagr with Sam Bennett and Kris Versteeg

So far, every indication is that Jagr will begin with the unfinished product of a prospect in Bennett and the journeyman winger in Versteeg. As this great Flames Nation piece by Ari Yanover states, this scenario would allow Calgary to roll out three potentially productive lines in the top-nine.

This scenario makes lot of sense, yet Flames head coach Glen Gulutzan should keep an open mind about how productive Jagr could be.

Jiri Jagr?

At the moment, the Flames’ top scoring line stands as Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Micheal Ferland.

Ferland, 25, has shown some promise in top-line situations. He’s also been able to do something with limited opportunities: he managed 15 goals and 25 points last season, which is more impressive when you consider that his time-on-ice average was a skimpy 11:34 per night.

Even so, the sample size with higher-end players isn’t huge, particularly with key catalyst Gaudreau. If Ferland struggles against top defensemen and checkers, Gulutzan shouldn’t be afraid to give Jagr a shot.

Really, Jagr might just be able to fit in with Gaudreau and Monahan like fellow veteran Czech winger Jiri Hudler once did. Hudler managed almost a point-per-contest (76 in 78) with those two young forwards as recently as 2014-15. It’s unfortunate that Hudler’s reportedly dealing with some personal struggles now, but it isn’t outrageous to claim that he was the best fit for those two so far. Maybe Jagr can emulate some of that, even at an advanced age?

Jagr and Hudler share at least one similar trait beyond nationality: they both have been splendid playmakers. In fact, their impact on shooting percentage was nearly identical in this intriguing study by TSN’s Travis Yost.

Sometimes it makes sense to try to spread the wealth. There’s not necessarily just one way to succeed in hockey, and maybe it would benefit Monahan and Gaudreau to have a puck possession genius who still possesses a blistering hockey IQ?

It could bring them up the first-line power rankings, for all we know.

Puck possession Voltron?

Look, on its face, it almost feels sacrilegious to break up “The 3M Line”* of Matthew Tkachuk, Michael Frolik, and Mikael Backlund.

On the other hand, injuries happen and coaches love to shake things up.

Imagine, for a second, that already potent puck-possession partnership becoming nuclear-level with a still-fancy-stats-friendly Jagr plugged in one spot? It’s fun to think about.

But, yeah, not the best idea.

Fourth line duty?

What, do you have a heart of coal? Never speak of that again.

***

Really, the Flames could experiment with a variety of alignments. If Jagr’s late-career journeyman status shows us anything, it’s that the icon can adapt and help his team in a variety of scenarios.

Just, seriously, don’t bury him in the lineup. That’s unacceptable.

* – Still a little bitter that my soup-inspired “MMM Line” nickname never caught on. Is that what this is all about, actually? Uh oh.

Under Pressure: Mike Smith

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This post is a part of Flames day at PHT…

Goaltending has been a major issue for the Calgary Flames in recent seasons and for the second year in a row they have completely overhauled the position, bringing in two new faces in an effort to fix it.

Replacing Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson this season (after Elliott and Johnson replaced Karri Ramo, Jonas Hiller and Joni Ortio the year before) will be the veteran of duo of Mike Smith and Eddie Lack.

Both goalies are looking to rebound with a fresh start in a new city.

Smith, acquired in an offseason trade with the Arizona Coyotes, is going to be the starter and is going to have the most pressure on him.

Not only because the Flames are still on the hook for the remainder of his contract (more than $11 million over the next two seasons) but because he is going to be playing behind a defense that is going to be one of the best in the NHL, led by Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie, Dougie Hamilton and Travis Hamonic. That is an outstanding group and even average goaltending should make the Flames one of the toughest teams in the league to score against.

Smith, however, has not always performed at that level in recent seasons.

Looking at his past three years total his even-strength save percentage of .920 places him 38th out of 61 goalies that have appeared in at least 50 games, while his overall save percentage of .911 places him 45th out of that group (his new backup, Eddie Lack, is 46th over that same stretch). Even if you look at only his performance from this past season in Arizona (a .914 save percentage) it wouldn’t be that big of an upgrade over what the Flames were getting out of the Elliott/Johnson duo.

Now, that was good enough to get the Flames into the playoffs and make them a middle-of-the-pack team when it came to preventing goals.

But the Flames are at a point now where their objective should be more than just simply “make the playoffs” or be an average defensive team.

If they weren’t, they wouldn’t have traded for a 35-year-old goalie and been willing to pay him more than $11 million over the next two seasons.

This is a team that has what should be on paper one of the best quartets of defensemen in the league, it has some outstanding young forwards that are just now entering the prime of their careers (Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau, Mikael Backlund) and some emerging young stars in Matthew Tkachuk and Sam Bennett.

They are clearly in what they believe to be a “win-now” mode with a chance to compete in the Western Conference.

For them to do that they are going to need a big season from their new goaltender.