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Backlund, Lindholm non-committal to future in Calgary following Flames’ disappointing season

Calgary Flames bench and head coach Darryl Sutter Calgary Flames bench and head coach Darryl Sutter - The Canadian Press

As they move on from one of the most disappointing seasons in franchise history, the Calgary Flames might have to make a tough decision on one of their most distinguished players.

Mikael Backlund, an alternate captain who has played the third-most games (908) in franchise history behind only Jarome Iginla and Mark Giordano, is a free agent in 2024 and eligible to sign an extension this summer.

The 34-year-old Swede, an integral part of the organization and greater Calgary community after being drafted 24th overall by the team in 2007, was non-committal on whether he wants to remain a Flame as the players cleaned out their lockers and had exit meetings on Friday following their 38-win season that ended two points shy of a playoff berth.

“I want to win the Stanley Cup,” he said. 

“I don’t know, the summer what’s gonna happen. Even if they offer us anything, or me, I might wanna see what this group can do [next season] before I make a decision…I’ve been here a long time. I love Calgary. I love the organization, but the year we had, I’m 34 years old.”

Fellow pivot Elias Lindholm, also a native of Sweden and one of the better two-way centres in the league, was also unwilling to publicly commit to discussing a contract extension. 

“We’ll see what happens,” the 28-year-old said. 

“I’ve got one more year. Gotta look at it that way. I have one more year and that’s all I can say.”

The Flames’ group of free agents for 2024 also includes forward Tyler Toffoli, and defencemen Noah Hanifin, Chris Tanev and Nikita Zadorov, all of whom were more open to staying put beyond next season.

Toffoli and Zadorov were particularly strong in their praise of the city and organization. 

“I told my family, I told my wife, I want to be a Calgary Flame forever,” Zadorov said. 

“I actually enjoyed these two years, living in Canada, living in Calgary,” the Moscow native, who turns 28 on Sunday, told TSN.

Toffoli, coming off a career-high, team-leading 73 points, including a team-high 34 goals, had similar comments. 

"I've had a great experience in Calgary,” Toffoli said. 

“I love Darryl and the city here. My wife loves it here. I wanna get something done," said the 30-year-old native of Scarborough, Ont.

The organization might want to avoid a repeat of a season ago, when star forward Johnny Gaudreau arrived at training camp without a new contract and speculation began swirling for months about his future. He eventually signed in Columbus, and Calgary was unable to trade him for assets.

While general manager Brad Treliving did impressive work in replacing Gaudreau (including dealing Matthew Tkachuk to the Florida Panthers, who made it known he would not re-sign when his Flames deal expired) with Panthers Jonathan Huberdeau, MacKenzie Weegar and Colorado Avalanche centre Nazem Kadri, the adjustments to the new team, organization, and city were far greater than they or anyone else anticipated.

“Different system than what I’m used to,” Weegar said.

“It was a huge change for me, coming from Florida to here. I don’t think I thought it was going to be a big change when I first got here. I thought it was going to be smooth, but it was a difficult change.”

“I didn’t think it was going to be this hard,” Huberdeau said.

Huberdeau is coming off a 60-point decrease compared to last season – when he tied for second overall in scoring with Gaudreau – the biggest season-to-season dropoff in league history. He attributed it to a lack of confidence, but made it clear that he didn’t forget how to play the sport that he set an NHL record for assists by a left winger (85) in during the 2021-22 season.

“I think I’ve just got to put that year behind me,” the 29-year-old said.

“Just a reset, mentally…I completely lost my swagger this year…you have no confidence.”

Throughout the season, there was also speculation about players’ relationships with head coach Darryl Sutter. Zadorov, Toffoli, and centre Trevor Lewis praised the coach, while Huberdeau and Kadri admitted to some challenges.

“There’s a lot factors throughout the year, like playing right wing for two months,” Huberdeau said rather than his usual left-winger spot.

“Obviously there’s a lot of speculation,” Kadri said.

“If we’re together nine months, you’re seeing each other everyday, sometimes even with your teammates you might butt heads a little bit. At the end of the day, you understand that you’re a team and you play for each other and stand up for each other.”

Calgary’s goaltending was a major disappointment this season as well, with both Jacob Markstrom and Dan Vladar posting sub-.900 save percentages. On too many nights, they allowed early or weak goals, leading to the team chasing the game.

“You almost try too hard,” the 33-year-old Markstrom said of his struggles.

“You tense up and you want it too much instead of just going out and playing and enjoying.”

Markstrom also said how much different it is adjusting your game when you’re winning, as opposed to losing. 

Kadri called the 2022-23 campaign a “bizarre” season that left a bitter taste in his mouth, surely thoughts that other players had.

The Flames lost 30 one-goal games during the season – 17 in overtime or in the shootout – and games where they also outshot opponents. They hit posts, couldn’t close out games, lacked emotion and investment, and seemed out of sync with each other and their coach.

It all added up to one of the most disappointing seasons in franchise history.

The talent, according to most players, was there. But something does have to change. Veteran Milan Lucic called this season’s group the most talented team he’s ever been on to not make the postseason.

“When you’re trying to find it and you feel like it’s right there, then you might go a different direction because you want to find it quicker and you go further from where you want to be,” Markstrom said.

“I won’t forget this. I remember the feeling very well and it’s not a feeling you want to have.”