Random Thoughts – More MIkael Backlund



With Darren Dreger recently tweeting that the Flames are shopping Backlund, it seems more and more that the former first rounders time with the organization is drawing to a close. We’ve defended backs around here a lot over the years, so this is going to seem redundant, but here’s a bit on why moving him for pennies on the dollar is a bad bet.

It’s been well established around these parts – Mikael Backlund is a top-5 player on this team in terms of driving possession. He led the Calgary Flames forwards by that metric over the last two years and is top-3 amongst regular forwards this year (despite starting from the defensive end more often). He’s not an overly compelling player in general because he doesn’t regularly do the spectacular stuff – he doesn’t fight or smash people into the boards and his offense is uneven at best. All he does is drive play into the offensive end.

An apt comparison might be baseball player Scott Hatteberg from the Oakland A’s (featured in Moneyball). Billy Beane signed Hatteberg off the scrap heap because he was good at getting on base – an unsexy metric (at the time) that correlated to runs and wins.

Because OBP was unsexy it was also cheap. Corsi and other possession metrics are the same in hockey today – over the long run, a higher corsi rating correlates with a better goal differential and wins, but in the short term it’s something that can be overwhelmed by the osscilations of fortune. The best teams in the league tend to consistently control the puck and spend more time in the offensive zone, meaning they aren’t overly reliant on all world goaltending or a high shooting percentage. Ergo, to eventually become a good team, the club should collect and keep as many possession players as possible.

Backlund, at 24 years old, does things that help teams win over the long-term. He’s not elite, so he can’t turn the boat around by himself, and his offense is underwhelming relative to his skill set. Unfortunately, that often means people focus on what Backlund isn’t rather than what he is – a useful, cheap, middle-tier forward who drives play in almost any circumstance.

– Another problem with trading Backlund now is the org is unlikely to get much in return for him. Because he doesn’t have good counting numbers and there are now questions about his viability as an NHLer, Calgary will be lucky to do better than a second round pick or middling prospect in return. It’s the kind of move the Oilers made in the early stages of their rebuild (see: Kyle Brodziak). Giving away established 24-year old centerman out of frustration or because he isn’t an bovious star is a good way to spin your wheels.

– It looks like to me that the decision makers have decided they’d rather bet on Colborne than Backlund moving forward, which results in the log-jam and "need" to move Mickis.

I liked the Colborne acquisition and I’m hoping he becomes something for the team, but aside from his size, there’s no reason currently to believe Colborne will be better the Backlund. His possession rates this year are worse (even though he starts way more often in the offensive zone), his even strength shot rate is worse and he has just as many points in the same number of games as Backlund. It might be tempting to give Colborne the benefit of the doubt given his age, but the fact is he’s just 10 months younger than Mikael, but has played about 160 less NHL games.

It’s possible Colborne will become a useful NHLer, but it’s also possible he’s a replacement level plug. If any center on this club should be getting the ambivalent "up-and-down the line-up treatment" it’s Joe Colborne, not Backlund – the former hasn’t proven anything at this level yet and doesn’t have any compelling results under his belt as a Flame, be it conventional stats or "advanced" metrics.

– Related: one of the many reasons I am against the frequent deployment of enforcers is their presence neuters an entire forward unit each night. Or, to put it another way, if the club had two functional bottom six combinations, it’s doubtful anyone would talk about having to choose Colborne over Backlund or vice versa.

Because a line featuring a tough guy can only see 5-7 minutes of ice time per night (and usually they are very unproductive minutes, because it is essentially like skating short-handed), everyone else on that trio is rendered ineffective. For example, in an alternate universe, the Flames could skate these two units:

  • Bouma – Backlund – D. Jones
  • Galiardi – Colborne – B. Jones

Or some mix of players therein. Instead, the team chooses to go with a functional third line and then a usless fourth unit because the two other guys have to carry around Brian McGrattan. An enforcer-less bottom-six would mitigate any questions about keeping Backlund or playing him versus Colborne because each guy would still have a fighting chance to be useful in this configuration no matter how you jumbled things.

Instead, the club is may trade Backlund for a nominal return essentially so they can gamble on Joe Colborne and play McGrattan every game.

  • thymebalm

    I wish we had an effective fourth line… but hey, Jackman is gone, so that’s a start.

    I was sad when I heard that the Flames want to bring up McDermid to patrol the fourth line at the NHL level. Ward was interviewed about him and said just as much “They intend to play him at the NHL level so our job is to get him up to speed on the systems here and get him some ice before he goes up..” (not exact quote, but that’s the vibe.

    This means you can only count on a 1/3 ineffective fourth line for a bit, before McDermid makes it 2/3 again.

  • piscera.infada

    If we are really shopping him and if Corsi is extremely important to teams, shouldn’t we be able to get a very good return for a young possession forward regardless of his offensive stats? I would think that Feaster would be aware of the teams that are big into advanced stats and be only negotiating with them.

    • Gange

      Except that a team is never going to tell you what metrics they use to rate players with. Instead, they’ll come at the Flames hard with his box scores to try and score a sweet trade for themselves.

      GMs smell blood in the water and are looking for an easy score on a player with upside that they’re gambling will blossom under a change of scenery. It’s never going to a huge coup or anything, we’re not talking about the Doug Gilmour trade, but right now I’d definately say other teams are looking at something for nothing.

      Which, of course, to Piscera’s point, doesn’t mean they have to move him.

      • RexLibris

        Feaster will know who is and shop his strengths. If there are 4-5 teams kicking tires and if their decisions are driven by advanced stats, it will soon become apparent in the neotiations.

  • thymebalm

    @Ryan Pike

    I really hope they don’t break up the Heat squad this season. The Heat fell apart after the call ups started coming last year. They were almost this good at this point last season too.

    Knight, Granlund, Hanowski, Billins, Ferland, Ortio… they are all playing like future NHLers right now. But it’s only 15 wins.. The Heat are already at the breaking point for injuries. They only had 5 healthy defenders for their last game of the road trip.

    No matter who comes up, the Flames aren’t winning this season. I see the sense in giving guys 3 game cups of coffee since we can afford to, but I think the development goes a long way if this young Heat team can make the playoffs and do some damage.

  • Gange

    Maybe we’re missing the point? Would you trade Backlund to have Connor McDavid? That’s about the only positive I can draw from this.

    My faith in this team’s pro-scouting is extremely low. Their amateur scouting, I’ve been impressed with actually.

    However I see that Martin Erat wants to be traded, I’m sure you can all see where this is going…

    • RexLibris

      Under Feaster the pro scouts have targeted Hudler, Wideman, Russell, Smid, Stempniak, Galiardi, Colborne, Billins, Street, B.Jones.

      Took chances on others such as Berra, Ramo and Cervenka.

      I don’t think the pro scouting is bad.

      I trust the Flames in their trading and FA signings.

      The trades they have arguably lost are mostly due to minimal flexibility. Such as Regehr when we had salary cap issues or Tanguay/Sarich who wanted out.

      Right now we have cap space, valuable UFA’s and players on good value contracts.

      We are in a position of strength in any future dealings… I am interested in seeing what they will do.

      Oh and Erat is post-apex and doesn’t transcend its meaning like Lecavalier.

  • RexLibris

    Any chance Backs is requesting to be traded (like Cody Hodgson) because of contract bad blood and the way he had been deployed over the years. Why else would Feaster “actively” shopping him.

    problem is, instead of pump and dump like the canucks did, we are not going to get anywhere close to full value for him.

  • Derzie

    Asset Management 101. Place guys in a position to succeed. Utilize skills correctly. No biases. Backlund is the poster boy for Hartley’s failure in this area. Position aside, would you rather have Backlund or Galiardi? D. Jones? Big Ern? Backlund is not a star and never will be. I am in the camp of realists when it comes to him. Solid middle tier defensive forward with a few too many turnovers at key times being a weakness and overall possession numbers as a strength. Backlund is not where we should be focusing our energies. Keep him, play the new talent and look for D and goalies.

  • flamesburn89

    Why do you have to trade Backlund just because he doesn’t provide a whole lot of offense? Wouldn’t he still be extremely valuable to CGY if he evolved into a Sami Pahlsson type guy? And he’s still young enough to help CGY when they really turn the corner and become competitive again.

    Bottomline, I believe Backlund is worth more at this point to CGY than a 2nd/3rd round pick would be.

    This is where Feaster will really impact this team. Dealing with young guys. That, and his ability to get a good return for shipping out some vets near the deadline.

  • Burnward

    Why is there so much certainty around here that this is going to be a long, drawn out re-build?

    There is nothing in Burke’s or Calgary’s history to suggest this will be the case.

    We have 30 million in Cap Space to play with, an interesting UFA pool coming up and plenty of flexibility.

    Not saying it’s the right way to go, but I think we’re kidding ourselves if we believe Burke/King have the stomach to lose the way the Oil or Panthers have done.

    • SmellOfVictory

      Interesting you bring up the Panthers. Dale Talon came into FLA after the team had acquired a few top picks. He blew his wad a few summers ago to dramatically speed up the rebuild. They had 30 mil in cap space & a few top 5 picks. They spent like drunk sailors on UFAs to speed things up.

      Now they are talking about selling off EVERYTHING that isn’t bolted down about starting over.

      They are basically the 100% opposite of what the Oilers have done. The Oilers committed 100% to a nuclear rebuild with the goal of building a powerhouse, not just quickly getting back to fighting for 8th. They have been stubborn to a fault, and not moved any asset or draft pick. They suck this year because they refuse to do anything to address needs now at the expense of the future.

      Personally I think they went TOO far, but I’d lean way more to Oilers style. I think with competent management, the core the Oilers have put together SHOULD be a powerhouse within 24 months. Lucky for us, they have a bunch of shmucks ruining it all.

      But FLA & EDM are not comparable examples of rebuild failures. Same results, but dramatically different.

      • Colin.S

        One of the big problems of the Oilers rebuild is that other than their first overalls they got pretty much NOTHING else out of the drafts. I think you can back 10 or more years and see the draft wasteland that is the Edmonton Oilers Rounds 2-7 draft. Not that the flames have been much better, but the Oilers don’t have much else outside their firsts. The Flames have managed to snag two top 4 defenders from an undrafted kid and a 4th rounder. That’s the difference. Maybe theres someone I missed that the oilers drafted/signed late and Rex could correct me,.

        • SmellOfVictory

          OH ya, tons of misteps. No reason a team with 3 1st overalls + Eberle should be last. Bad drafting, bad coaching, bad management, bad logo.

          All I was saying with the FLA comparable is that I absolutely DO NOT want to follow their path. They got impatient, tried to rush things along or do all sorts of things to be smarter and more creative than other teams (Dale Tallon thought he was smarter than everyone else). They snuck into the playoffs once, then the deck of cards fell in.

          Now they are basically starting over.

          I’d argue Ottawa is another example of what happens when you mini rebuild. You get back to mediocre quick… But FLA is the best example.

          Now is not the time for impatience, creativity, UFAs, mini retools or crazy anything.

      • T&A4Flames

        FLA went bonkers on free agency because they had to get above the cap floor. Adding some vets wasn’t a terrible idea anyway since they really needed some players to mentor their numerous kids. Now some of those kids are showing well and they need to make room as well as keep their cap down to their internal budget.

  • piscera.infada

    I’m in the camp of let’s not trade him unless it’s a good trade. I have said a few times that I’m open to trading anyone on the team for the right return.. (I also would agree that it might be difficult to get a good return for Backlund based on his stats and use)

    If Backlund were traded though think about the decrease of comments and content on the site. Sometimes it’s interesting to me how much attention our 3rd/4th line centre gets. (not a criticism just an observation)

    In an ideal world our third line centre drives both possession and is able to score.

    Lastly I agree with most who are suggesting that we dress a hard working skilled 4th line. I’d keep Gratz on the team for use against some of the other knucklehead clubs but I would dress him rarely. I bet he’s on pace for career appearances in a year. (makes little sense)

    • piscera.infada

      agree. Alternatively why not have Gratz go to the front of the net and cause havoc with the opposition d’men. We would be better served than him trying to keep up with the other linemates. He should head straight to the blue paint and stir the pot.

  • J.P.

    Personally I would choose not to trade Backlund. However if they do, maybe a good target would be Ryan Ellis from Nashville (who is also getting limited minutes). Burke does have history with Nashville in picking up Franson.

  • RexLibris

    To Kurt, Burnward and Colin S.

    Sorry to step in, but with regards to the Oilers rebuild, their depth drafting, and the Hawks’ way of doing thing…

    The Oilers haven’t rushed their 1st overall picks into the league, virtually all player taken there play in the league in their first year. That they haven’t had players taken in the later rounds play regularly in the NHL yet isn’t a damning stat…yet. Prospects take time to develop and the Oilers didn’t find a Ryan O’Reilly in the 2nd round. Some are tracking well, others aren’t, that is pretty much par for the course. If some don’t begin to break through next season, though, then this criticism becomes more appropriate.

    The Oilers have drafted well in depth rounds with players like Jeff Petry, Shawn Horcoff, Fernando Pisani, Jarret Stoll, Matt Greene, and a few others. So their history isn’t entirely devoid of talent. They and the Flames are fairly similar in this regard. What has sunk the Flames is that they couldn’t find a player in the first round if they had a map and a tour guide.

    As for the Hawks, they had Seabrook and Keith in their system developing from earlier drafts, then stunk and got Toews and won the draft lottery the next year to get Kane. They traded for Sharp (Matt Ellinson and a 3rd round pick) and moved Brandon Bochenski for Kris Versteeg. Hossa was offered a gajillion dollars and they got Khabibulin as a free agent. The Hawks built up a solid base gradually that came together exactly when they added the high-end talent to complete the picture.

    You can’t plan what they did, it just worked out. The Oilers didn’t plan to draft 1st overall three years in a row. Tambellini was just that bad at managing a hockey club – notice how his name NEVER comes up in potential GM discussions.

    • T&A4Flames

      A couple of things Rex:
      1. Sure, by draft pedigree it cojld be argued those players weren’t rushed into the league. However, it could easily be argued that the expectation put on those players was rushed. Hall was put immediatly into the top line without a lot of support. Same with Ebs, and RNH. To much expectation too soon.

      As for Flames drafting, I’m pretty sure both franchises went through a similar period where their 1st rnd drafting was futile. It appearz that both have improved recently. In EDM case I would hope so being as they have had 3 1sts overalls and top 7 picks in 6 of 7 yrs.

      As for Hemmer, as you said, he’s been kept around because nobody believes he’s worth enough to entice EDM to trade him. I have little doubt if a decent offer was there, he would have been moved a long time ago and added to the disbanded vet pile.

      • RexLibris

        Fair points, however with regards to your first, couldn’t one argue that if the Oilers had actually had a decent 1st line player who could support a rookie like Hall, Eberle or Nugent-Hopkins, then they wouldn’t have found themselves drafting 1st overall in the first place?

        The best they could do was have Horcoff mentor them on professionalism and off-ice behaviour.

        When I looked at the Flames and Oilers drafting back in the spring/summer, what stood out was that both could find role players. For every Rico Fata there is a Jani Rita, a Greg Nemisz and a Jesse Niinimaki, and so on.

        The Oilers and Flames may find themselves both on the phone to the Penguins this trade deadline with scoring wingers on offer (Hemsky and Cammalleri). Could be interesting times ahead.

  • prendrefeu

    Tough situation with so many Prospects at center… and so many middle tier centers in the org.

    I would bet that he doesnt get moved due to a lack of a return.

    Im thinking Feaster is just fishing… that is if there is any truth to this rumour which I am also skeptical of.

  • MonsterPod

    Dreger says Carolina has made an offer on Backlund but there’s not a fit yet. The Flames would be looking to add a player back of a similar age who’s comparable.