November 03 2014 09:30AM
For the first month of the season, many around the Calgary Flames probably had a similar thought. While traditional possession giants T.J. Brodie and Mark Giordano continued their strong Corsi work unabated as the new season began - and Paul Byron began to prove that his strong work when he was healthy late last season probably was an indicator of future work - one of the usual suspects was conspicuous by his absence.
The common thought? "What the heck is up with Mikael Backlund?"
Trying to shake off an abdominal injury during the pre-season, Backlund was handled strategically throughout the first bit of the regular season. Easier zone starts (Stajan was buried in the defensive zone). Easier competition (Monahan ate the tough minutes). More high ground that he was used to traditionally. Maintenance days off the practice ice as often as necessary to keep him fresh as he worked through the injury.
But Plan A didn't work, so now Plan B - parking him on the injured reserve for a while to see if he recovers - is being implemented. (And hopefully they don't have to resort to the theoretical Plan C - surgery - as that would cost #11 even more game time.)
It's the latest in a series of injuries for Backlund that have limited his playing time, interrupted his seasons and halted his organizational momentum since he became a full-time NHLer three years ago.
- 2011-12: played 41 of 82 games (missed time due to a broken finger in training camp and an arm injury mid-season)
- 2012-13: played 32 of 48 games (missed time due to a knee injury and a broken foot, which also cost him time at the World Championship)
- 2013-14: played 76 of 82 games (missed time due to a hand injury)
It's never the same thing, but it's always something.
And that's a factor that's dogged Backlund throughout his pro career. After his entry-level deal, he'd established himself as a strong two-way player and a guy that could be relied upon for the tough minutes and (especially more recently) some key goals.
So why have his post-entry-level contracts been a 1-year/$725,000 deal and a 2-year/$1.5 million deal?
Because the team is probably looking at his numbers and thinking two things.
- "Sample size! He needs to do it for a full season or two for us to believe this is his actual level of play."
- "We have to keep some cap space handy to sign or acquire a replacement for him down the stretch when he inevitably gets injured."
What worries me is the second party, because nowadays the Calgary Flames actually have some internal center depth. It's no longer just Backlund and the Roman Cervenkas and converted wingers of the world.
Sean Monahan is an NHL center and is improving. Matt Stajan is the de facto elder statesman of the group, and his contract probably sees him move down the depth chart during his tenure, but he's a nice safety valve for the young kids. Sam Bennett is probably in the NHL next season - and may have been in the NHL as we speak if not for his bum shoulder. Markus Granlund is a guy pushing for an NHL job. And Bill Arnold, Corban Knight and utility man Max Reinhart are all pressing for jobs.
What do these names (other than Stajan) have in common? They're all younger than Backlund. They're all going to be on either their entry-level or bridge deals in the next few years (and will all probably be about as cheap as Backlund cap-wise).
And if one or two of them can establish themselves as some combination of (a) as useful as Backlund to the coaches or (b) healthier than Backlund, they may find themselves supplanting Backlund in short order.
I like Mikael Backlund. He's a good interview. He does a lot of community work and clearly loves this city and being a Calgary Flame. And he's a very good hockey player when he's healthy enough to string some games together and build up his confidence.
But for a rebuilding team, players aren't people - they're assets. And to progress through a rebuild, you need reliable assets that you can build around. And if you have an asset that's unavailable to you for a third or even a half of every season, that's not an asset you can really carry forward long-term.
I hope Mikael Backlund licks this injury quickly and can return to the Flames line-up at 100%. As a pending restricted free agent - and somebody his general manager is likely still evaluating as an asset - his job may very well depend on it.