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DENVER — Sean Monahan had just marked a significant games-played milestone.
Mikael Backlund was suddenly winging it.
For these unexpected linemates, the quips — and the chemistry — seemed to come easy.
“We were joking about it right away when we heard it — ‘Well, it only took them 500 games to figure it out, I guess,’ ” Backlund grinned prior to Monday’s matchup between the Calgary Flames and Colorado Avalanche in the Mile High City. “Mony was saying, ‘Of all the players, I didn’t expect you at all to be on my line today.’ ”
So far, this unlikely combo has stuck.
It’s been a week now since Flames interim coach Geoff Ward called Backlund into his new office at the Saddledome and floated an idea — that he’d like to experiment with using No. 11 on the right wing.
And so, Calgary’s usual second-line centre found himself on the flank.
“I was a little surprised, at first,” Backlund admitted. “I mean, I haven’t done it in my whole career in the NHL and no other coach has asked me before. But then I was like, ‘Yeah, sure. No problem.’ It got me a little excited to try something new.
“You know, at the time, we were playing decent but our offensive game wasn’t where we wanted. Changing things up maybe sparks you sometimes, and I totally agree with Wardo on that. I was just like, ‘Yeah, this will be a good opportunity for me to try something new.’ And over the long run, it’s always good to be able to play different positions. Your team is always going to appreciate that.”
What made Backlund seem like a long-shot candidate to be shifted to the wing is that the 30-year-old Swede has carved out a reputation as one of the NHL’s most reliable defensive centres.
In fact, he finished fourth in Selke Trophy voting in 2016-17, just missing out on an invite to the annual awards gala.
He was eighth on the ballots last season.
The thinking, however, behind this fling on the wing was to allow Backlund to focus a little more on offence, to free him up from spending so much time as the F3 — hockey-speak for the high forward, the last to enter the attacking zone.
“He doesn’t have to be the F3 as much, so he’s able to get in, get in on pucks, make some plays,” Ward explained after Monday’s morning skate at Pepsi Center. “He has good hands and protects it well. So we just felt like, instead of him trying to worry about what’s going on defensively all the time, let’s give him an opportunity to play with the puck a little bit more. That was the main reason.
“We feel like we have two guys who can play in the middle on that line, which gives us some versatility. But we just felt the combination of those two may have some chemistry, and it’s turned out that, in the first couple of games anyway, they have shown some real potential together.”
Perhaps, their former bosses will be wondering why they didn’t think to try this improbable pair.
In his first 500 outings in the Flaming C, Monahan figures his only shifts alongside Backlund came during overtime sessions five or six seasons ago. (“He’s a smart player,” Monahan said of his sudden sidekick. “Obviously, we’re both centremen so we kind of think the game the same way. So we can read off each other and make some plays.”)
Backlund has now logged 652 appearances at the big-league level, all but the past three of ’em as a pivot.
His last stint as a winger was during the NHL lockout in 2012, when he stayed sharp with his hometown team, Vasteras IK, in Sweden’s second pro division.
“It’s fun,” Backlund said. “I look at it as a good challenge.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019