2012-13 Reasonable Expectations: Mikael Backlund

Ryan Pike
September 07 2012 12:21PM

 

 

If there's one Flames player waiting eagerly for the CBA talks to culminate and get back onto the ice, it's Mikael Backlund. There may be nobody else on the roster – not Roman Cervenka, not Sven Baertschi, not anybody else – with as much to prove as Backlund.

Calgary's first round selection (24th overall) in the 2007 Entry Draft, Backlund made the jump from Sweden to North America to play with the Kelowna Rockets, stopping in for a single game of NHL action along the way. When he turned pro with the Abbotsford Heat in the fall of 2010, his scoring touch wasn't lost and while his 32 points in 54 games wasn't going to break records, it helped turn some heads.

But Backlund's offensive production has led to a bit of head-scratching regarding the 23-year-old pivot. While he hasn't lit the lamp too much at the NHL level (he's scored 15 goals in 138 NHL games), he has quietly developed into one of the few Flames that doesn't drown against high-level opposition. If you can develop a first round pick into an everyday NHLer that's the best on your team at anything, you're probably happy with that result.

That said, if five years post-draft, your first round pick misses half the season due to injury and, despite being one of your best two-way players is a minus-13 on the (half)-year, it's probably not an ideal situation, either.

Now that he's 100% healthy and the team seemingly knows what he can do, the onus is on Backlund to have a strong season.

EXPECTATIONS AND COMPARABLES

Let's get the hard part out of the way first. Backlund has played in the NHL for parts of three seasons. In 2009-10, he had 0.43 points per game. In 2010-11, that scoring rate dropped to 0.34 points per game. In 2011-12, that figure fell further to 0.27 points per game.

That said, a lot of the drop-off can be blamed on Backlund's injuries last season, the fact that he was playing against some stiff competition on the other side, and that his shooting percentages were atrocious. Career-wise, Backlund has scored on 5.4 percent of his shots. Compare that to Alex Tanguay (a career 18.6 percent), Lee Stempniak (11.3 percent) and Olli Jokinen (9.8 percent). It can be reasonably surmised that Backlund's percentages will go up. The question is “how far?”

In terms of offensive production, some comparable players can be found within the bottom-six of many teams. Andrew Cogliano put up 35 points at a similar point in his career. Patrick Berglund put up 38 points. Gilbert Brule had a pro-rated 18 point season. Kyle Chipchuara had 12 points. Trevor Lewis had a measly 7 points, but was a very effective two-way presence. Lauri Korpikoski had 11 points.

As you can see, there's a good deal of variation, and a lot of it depends on who each player's linemates were and who they played against. While it can be reasonably assured that Backlund will probably continue to play against top-six competition, who his linemates will be remains a mystery.

OPPORTUNITY

Mikael Backlund is in an interesting position. He's not an amazing face-off guy, but he wins face-offs at the same clip as the Flames other centres, and usually against tough competition. The club will also have Blair Jones and Matt Stajan up the middle, as well as some combination of Mike Cammalleri and Roman Cervenka.

Of the three natural centres on the roster, Backlund is arguably the best all around player.

In terms of ice-time, Backlund will likely be battling with the likes of Cervenka, Cammalleri, Iginla, Hudler, Tanguay, Glencross and Baertschi for top-six time. He'll also be a fixture on the penalty-kill, a role at which he was rather good last season. As far as linemates go, Backlund will probably be thrown in with some combination of the top six bunch and Blake Comeau and Lee Stempniak. These ten guys, along with Matt Stajan, probably comprise the club's top nine.

Will he get a lot of offensive zone time? It's possible, but the team has other players it probably wants to give the high ground to. Will he get a lot of power-play time? Again, possibly, but the question is how often - unless he somehow lands on a line with Iginla and Tanguay, Cervenka and Cammalleri will likely rate ahead of him on that front.

CONCLUSION

After three seasons in the Flames organization, the time has come for Mikael Backlund to take his great step forward. Or not.

Now 23 years old and an NHL regular, the open question is what kind of player Backlund has grown to be. A big criticism of prospect Greg Nemisz is that he doesn't know what kind of game he's trying to play, as opposed to Lance Bouma, who seems to know in his bones what to do and who to hit on the ice. It takes longer with some guys than it does with others, but Backlund showed flashes of become a very effective two-way player last season.

The keys to success for Backlund are staying healthy and actually converting on some scoring chances. He'll definitely be on the penalty-kill and playing against the other team's better players, simply because he's one of the few Flames forwards who has success in that role. But who he plays with at five-on-five likely depends on how Bob Hartley sees Backlund fitting in: top-six scorer, third line checker or fourth line replacement player. If he's given decent line-mates and develops an offensive opportunism into his game, Backlund could become a very effective primary forward for the Flames.

If his percentages don't rebound and he fails to add at least some scoring, the kid might fall out of favor in Calgary for good. Meaning, if he's thrown into the bottom-six scrap heap, it's unclear if he'll be able to regain any of the momentum that he lost last season.

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Now in his third full season covering the Calgary Flames and the NHL, Ryan Pike is a Calgary native and FlamesNation's managing editor. He's trying to keep his head up, his stick on the ice and is giving it 110% every shift. You can also find his work at The Hockey Writers, the Wrestling Observer and Tough Talk MMA.
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#1 Baalzamon
September 07 2012, 12:48PM
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another good comparable for Backlund is Ryan Kesler. In fact, Backlund's NHL career has been practically identical to Kesler's so far. If that pattern holds, this season should be something like Kesler's 37 point/ 80 game 3rd full season (likely with fewer games played--more like 74).

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#2 Bean-counting cowboy
September 07 2012, 01:42PM
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I reasonbly expect him to have a break out year.

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#3 Kent Wilson
September 07 2012, 01:51PM
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@Baalzamon

While I don't think Backlund will ever be Kesler good, it's interesting to note that Ryan had single digit SH% through his first three seasons as well, including a 6.8% in 2006-07, his third year in the league (incidentally, he only played 40-odd that season as well).

As a result, Kesler only managed 18 goals in his first 158 games or about the same rate as Backs through three seasons.

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#4 beloch
September 07 2012, 01:59PM
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As others have pointed out, Calgary desperately needs some decent puck-possession forwards. Even if Backlund doesn't prove to be a scorer he can certainly fill a possession role and earn a long-term spot on the roster, albeit probably at a lower salary than he might be hoping for.

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#5 Steve
September 07 2012, 02:13PM
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Kent Wilson wrote:

While I don't think Backlund will ever be Kesler good, it's interesting to note that Ryan had single digit SH% through his first three seasons as well, including a 6.8% in 2006-07, his third year in the league (incidentally, he only played 40-odd that season as well).

As a result, Kesler only managed 18 goals in his first 158 games or about the same rate as Backs through three seasons.

Yeah, I don't think having similar stats for their fist two seasons makes them comparable. I would think there are hundreds of players that had two poor seasons and then quietly faded out of the league.

I think Backlund's good enough to stick around. At times last year, thought he was their best player. Just always (not that I saw every game) seemed to panic when he got the puck in scoring areas.

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#6 Kent Wilson
September 07 2012, 02:38PM
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@Steve

That's fair. The point for me wasn't that Backlund is necessarily comparable to Kesler - just that even good players can be poor shooters through a 100-150 game stretch, particularly at the onset of their careers.

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#7 T&A4Flames
September 07 2012, 02:41PM
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Steve wrote:

Yeah, I don't think having similar stats for their fist two seasons makes them comparable. I would think there are hundreds of players that had two poor seasons and then quietly faded out of the league.

I think Backlund's good enough to stick around. At times last year, thought he was their best player. Just always (not that I saw every game) seemed to panic when he got the puck in scoring areas.

To me he just looked tentative and lacking confidence. I think, perhaps the injuries got to him a little bit.

However, I do recall him saying a year or 2 back that he felt he needed to work on his defensive side of the game. Maybe that's just what his focus was; D first.

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#8 Steve
September 07 2012, 03:01PM
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Kent Wilson wrote:

That's fair. The point for me wasn't that Backlund is necessarily comparable to Kesler - just that even good players can be poor shooters through a 100-150 game stretch, particularly at the onset of their careers.

Yes, I was just agreeing with your point that Backlund will likely never be as good as Kesler. And I do take heart in the evidence presented. And the fact that I believe his shortcomings are borne of a lack of confidence. A few pucks bounce the right way and find the back of the net - could suddenly see a very different player.

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#9 Kent Wilson
September 07 2012, 03:39PM
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@Steve

Yeah, kids sometimes take awhile to build up their abilities/confidence. In addition, they usually start getting more PP time as they age, which helps drive up the ol' SH% a bit. Kesler landing on the first unit with the Sedins the last few years certainly hasn't hurt him.

Not sure if Backlund will make it past occasional second unit guy at any point, but we'll see.

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#10 the-wolf
September 07 2012, 04:53PM
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Year 4 is often 'the year,' so we'll see.

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#11 RKD
September 07 2012, 05:32PM
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This season is make or break for Backlund. If he doesn't perform I believe the organization will trade him or let him walk as a free agent.

I have hope he can rebound, he was injured twice last season and missed significant time. He will be hard pressed to gain ice time as he is behind quite a few others on the depth chart. However, Hartley may bump him up if he starts producing.

Hard to compare him to Kesler, Kesler is more physical and much harder to knock off the puck than Backlund. Backlund is going to be finesse player, not a power forward.

Kesler has played on better teams than Calgary, the Flames haven't won the NW since the 05/06 season.

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#12 Tenbrucelees
September 07 2012, 06:26PM
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I hope I'm wrong but Backlund looks nothing special and I can't see him kicking on. I think it's wishful thinking as pre Baertschi et al, he is the only prospect. Like I say hope I'm proved wrong.

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#13 negrilcowboy
September 07 2012, 07:09PM
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its make or break time for backs

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#14 SeanCharles
September 07 2012, 07:12PM
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I noticed alot last season that Backlund would help get the puck into the oppossing teams end, would change and his linemates would stay on the ice and begin to make a play. But, since Backlund changed the play would fade because he wasnt there for support.

No matter what the reasons for this: lack of confidence, coach's role for him; I think he should rebound. Its a fresh start for him. A new coach, not being injured, having other youth that is also talented on the regular roster:Sven, as well as being on a 1 year, last chance with Flames, deal should all contribute to him being better next year.

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#15 44stampede
September 07 2012, 10:21PM
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RKD wrote:

This season is make or break for Backlund. If he doesn't perform I believe the organization will trade him or let him walk as a free agent.

I have hope he can rebound, he was injured twice last season and missed significant time. He will be hard pressed to gain ice time as he is behind quite a few others on the depth chart. However, Hartley may bump him up if he starts producing.

Hard to compare him to Kesler, Kesler is more physical and much harder to knock off the puck than Backlund. Backlund is going to be finesse player, not a power forward.

Kesler has played on better teams than Calgary, the Flames haven't won the NW since the 05/06 season.

Well I hope cooler heads would prevail. Just because he doesn't break out into a star or one who scores a ton doesn't mean he wouldn't be useful. Letting him walk would be silly unless he demands a bunch of money. Based on what he just accepted, he probably wouldn't.

Make or break for me means that he may become a bottom six player or a top six player. Doesn't make him garbage.

All of this is assuming a team doesn't offer something really good for him but why would another team do that?

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#16 bookofloob
September 07 2012, 11:11PM
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Backlund was a relatively high profile draft choice, and I think because of that, the expectation was that he was supposed to blossom into this phenom who racks up ridiculous numbers. But that's not his game.

Any kind of steady progression in the kind of game Mikael plays is good enough for me. I thinbk he can be a very useful player

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#17 Baalzamon
September 07 2012, 11:11PM
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@44stampede

actually I could definitely see the Flames letting Backlund go after (or during) this season under certain circumstances (unfortunately).

For example, say Cervenka is the real deal. Horak takes a big step forward. Reinhart continues to be that steady, smart player he is (and develops into a hard-minutes guy), and maybe earns a callup this season. Say Backlund is on pace for about 20 points at the deadline. The Flames wouldn't want to be accused of holding on to a player too long just because he's a former 1st rounder, and possibly inhibiting the development of guys like Horak and Reinhart in the process.

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#18 Willi P
September 08 2012, 12:09AM
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For the money, I take Backlund over Kwyin Wyin Keswa any day. Wyin got his payday even though he disapears in the playoffs (ok, they say he was hurt again, boohoo Kwyin Wyin) and turns on his own team mates during the olympics.

Backlund has been nothing but class about his situation and I think he breaks out this year (if we have a season).

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#19 44stampede
September 08 2012, 12:55AM
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@Baalzamon

That is a few big IFs :) I can't see all those things happening. But sure, I guess if it did then it makes a little sense (not that I agree with it).

He wouldn't fetch anything on the market really in that scenario of 20pts. Even if he played 4th line minutes making the league minimum (or close to it) he would have very good value even if he didn't improve where he is. To me that is worth more than a 2-4th round pick that he might fetch.

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#20 The Last Big Bear
September 08 2012, 09:59AM
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If you go back and look at scouting reports, etc, one of the things they always said about Backlund, in previous camps, even in juniors, was that he could already shoot at an NHL level. His shot was heavy and accurate, and one of the reasons why he was such a scoring threat at previous levels.

For some reason, we're not seeing that from him any more.

I think that alone could be the difference between Backlund being lost in the bottom 6, and him becoming a key member of the Flames roster.

And I may be in the distinct minority here, but I think Backlund has the potential to be comparable to Ryan Kesler. I will not be surprised if Backlund puts up 25-30 goals a season in his prime years.

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#21 Jeff In Lethbridge
September 08 2012, 10:52AM
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I don't see Calgary moving Backlund just because he doesn't emerge as a star/franchise/clear-top-6 forward...

My opinion is that he still has some good upside given his age, his ability to develop two-way skills, and his attitude.

I believe Backlund still has a place even if other players do emerge (i.e. Cervenka, Horak, Reinhart, Baertchi). I don't see this as a threat to Backlund's position as much as I see it being a threat to older players... because, while the "rebuild" feels (to some) like it is moving at a glacial speed (if at all), there is nonetheless a clear indication that this team is moving in a direction that favors youth, skill, speed, and "hockey-IQ". He fits into an age group that will be critical moving forward, and even if he lands as a bottom six forward, he can still play a critical role for the team for many years.

Yes, he earned a one year "show-me" contract, but this favors Backlund as well as the team under many circumstances.

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#22 SmellOfVictory
September 08 2012, 03:28PM
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The Last Big Bear wrote:

If you go back and look at scouting reports, etc, one of the things they always said about Backlund, in previous camps, even in juniors, was that he could already shoot at an NHL level. His shot was heavy and accurate, and one of the reasons why he was such a scoring threat at previous levels.

For some reason, we're not seeing that from him any more.

I think that alone could be the difference between Backlund being lost in the bottom 6, and him becoming a key member of the Flames roster.

And I may be in the distinct minority here, but I think Backlund has the potential to be comparable to Ryan Kesler. I will not be surprised if Backlund puts up 25-30 goals a season in his prime years.

I'm with you on this one. He may be more finesse-y than Kesler stylistically, but he's already strong on the puck, he shows flashes of good vision, and IIRC he's got the 2nd or 3rd hardest shot among Flames forwards.

And imagine if he does break out this season, after getting absolutely squeezed by Feaster. I won't presume to know how he'd react, but I can easily see a player making a push for bigger money after being what I consider to be somewhat mistreated by management financially.

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#23 The Last Big Bear
September 08 2012, 07:52PM
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My 'reasonable expectation' of Michael Backlund is that we see him back in Flames silks a year from now at $2.5-3m per year.

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#24 Captain Ron
September 09 2012, 01:32AM
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Given reasonable offensive opportunity I would like to see 15 goals and 30-40 points if he plays anything close to a full season.

He is talented enough to do that once he gains some confidence.

Next season 20 goals, and 20 -25 goals a season after that when he reaches his prime years.

Those should be reasonable expectations for him. I would be pretty satisfied with those results.

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