Flames’ Mikael Backlund picking up steam in Selke conversation

Brian Elliott made 31 saves as the Calgary Flames won their ninth straight game by beating the Winnipeg Jets 3-0.

Every year around this time, as we separate the contenders from the rest, NHL awards talk begins to picks up.

When it comes to the Selke Trophy, awarded to the best defensive-minded forward, we tend to see the same names rise to surface.

The usual suspects include Patrice Bergeron, Anze Kopitar, Jonathan Toews, and, in the not-so-distant past, Pavel Datsyuk. But this year, we’ve been hearing the argument that it might be time to welcome a new name into the mix: Mikael Backlund.

Sportsnet’s Kelly Hrudey has liked what he’s seen from the 27-year-old NHL forward this season, and suggests he deserves a shot at the Selke.

“I’m going to put Mikael Backlund in that category now,” Hrudey said on Hockey Night in Canada. “When you think of the giant strides he had taken last year, and looking at the first goal of the game [Saturday night vs. Jets], you just get a sense of how smart he is, hockey-wise.”

Backlund turned heads last year with a career-best 21 goals and 47 points, but his strong play was perhaps overshadowed by the Flames’ disappointing showing, missing the playoffs after an exciting run one year prior.

Now, 68 games into 2016-17, Backlund has already matched that 21-goal mark with his first-period tally against the Winnipeg Jets, and has one-upped his points total.

The shutdown centreman has been a consistently responsible presence on a team that has struggled through parts of the season.

“It’s his overall play,” said Hrudey. “He’s really taken it to the next level.”

Calgary has now won nine games in a row—a franchise record since moving from Atlanta. And while credit can be handed out around the entire dressing room—with a little extra going to goalie Brian Elliott after back-to-back shutouts—Backlund has stood out, thanks to his smart play and versatility.

He’s quickly become a favourite among the analytically-inclined, too. As Andrew Berkshire pointed out last week, Backlund’s low-risk play, defensive prowess, and strong scoring touch has made him one of the Flames’ most impactful players this year.

From Berkshire:

Backlund is the prototypical player that proves that making the so-called ‘safe play’ isn’t the best play, it’s just the easiest thing you can do. Using his high skill level and willingness to take a small risk for big gain, he drives play better than any other Flames forward, forming one of the NHL’s most dominant possession lines with Michael Frolik and rookie Matthew Tkachuk. Andrew Berkshire, sportsnet.ca

Backlund told Postmedia’s Kristen Odland earlier this week that former Flames coach Bob Hartley helped him find his two-way game.

“I needed to find my role, and during the [2012-13] lockout, I kind of found it,” Backlund told Odland. “Bob [Hartley] did a good job of helping me become a two-way player and now … in the past few years, I’ve worked on my offensive game to bring some creativity back in it.”

He has clearly found his role, and has earned the full trust of his teammates and coach Glen Gulutzan in the meantime.

“I’ve put him in almost every tough situation that I could put him in—against other teams’ top players, burying him in the defensive zone,” Gulutzan told reporters when asked about the Selke talk.

“If you look at all of his numbers,” said Gulutzan, “I think there might be an argument there.”

So while the post-season push is front-of-mind for all involved, the award rumblings are worth keeping an eye on in Calgary.

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