While the moderate side of the NHL universe sits back, takes a deep breath and talks openly about the future of fighting, the roles of enforcers and the direction hockey is headed, the Calgary Flames rolled the clock back to the 1970s.
At least they did Wednesday night.
Facing a Toronto Maple Leafs team that ranks among league leaders in penalty minutes, fighting majors and hits, the Calgary Flames decided to dress two fourth-line enforcers – Brian McGrattan and Tim Jackman – for the home game at the Saddledome. In doing so, the Flames made skilled center Mikael Backlund a healthy scratch. Yes, that’s the same Backlund who started the season as the team’s de facto No. 1 center, the same Backlund who’s the team’s best man in the faceoff circle, the same Backlund who best plays a solid two-way game.
All to get a little more grit in the lineup for a handful of shifts.
McGrattan did win a fight against Toronto’s Frazer McLaren and Jackman did deliver a hit in his 3:06 of ice time. Meanwhile, Toronto won 56 percent of the draws while Calgary greenhorns Joe Colborne and Sean Monahan combined for more than 40 minutes of ice time down the middle.
To the Flames credit, they dominated play and outshot the Leafs by almost a 2-to-1 margin even though they lost the game 4-2. Calgary has played with an enthusiasm and work ethic not seen in Saddledome home jerseys in a decade. Coach Bob Hartley has executed on a fast-paced, puck movement style of play that is fun to watch. GM Jay Feaster has made several player acquisitions that past 16 months that have hit pay dirt.
But making your most skilled center a healthy scratch in order to get muscle fiber in the lineup? That didn’t make sense. Backlund has been a mild disappointment production-wise with two goals and four points in 11 games, but he’s also played a strong role in defensive assignments and ranks well on the team in driving possession.
Was Hartley delivering a message? Probably. And maybe in the end, it will be well received. But at a time in the game when people are questioning the values of the John Scotts and Patrick Kaletas of the league, it didn’t go over well among Calgary fans.
The website flamesnation.ca is a terrific forum that captures the mood and blood pressure of Flames fans. And it was boiling over Wednesday after the Backlund healthy scratch. It was effectively unanimous: Get the dancing bears out of the lineup and put the skill back in.
They say enforcers have a diminishing role in today’s NHL. That’s not true. Toronto’s doing well with McLaren and Colton Orr in the lineup. And because they’re in the lineup, Calgary felt it necessary to counter with McGrattan and Jackman. So the beleaguered enforcer took Backlund and his skill set out of this game.