Prospect Profiles – MIkael Backlund

Calgary Flames v New York Islanders


While it’s almost a certainty that Backlund will make the big team out of training camp this coming October, the young centerman is still technically a rookie and therefore a "prospect", so I felt it would be meaningful to look at his AHL results from last year, given the fact that he spent a majority of the season there.

Backlund is an interesting case. The Flames under Darryl Sutter have usually employed a sort of "tough love" philosophy with their younger players. It’s often meant that kids who can’t clearly aqnd consistently outperform  an established vet get the fourth line, the bench, the press-box or the ticket to the farm team. The first kid the team was ever unabashedly rooting for (so to speak) was Dion Phaneuf, and for good reason – the former 9th overall draft pick was a CHL defenseman of the year and WJC gold medal winner before he ever made the NHL.

Backlund is the only other player in recent memory who has obviously had the backing of the management. During his first training camp, he visibly struggled in the exhibition season, but was still granted good linemates during the games and was one of the final cuts. The same can be said of his second training camp. When he fled Sweden to join the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets in 2008-09, the Flames used a Bertuzzi injury as an excuse to get Backlund into his first NHL game, despite some extremely lackluster results from Vasteras IK (Backlund scored just 4 goals and 8 points in 17 games before jumping ship).

This past season, the Flames recalled Backlund for the final quarter of the year, despite the fact that he wasn’t exactly blowing the doors off of the AHL. He managed 15 goals and 32 points in 54 games – a .59 PPG pace. Nothing to write home about and inferior to the 20 year old season of one Dustin Boyd (.91 PPG), whom the Flames recently shipped out of town for a 4th round pick. In fact, according to Darryl Sutter, one of the reasons Boyd was moved was the emergence of Mikael Backlund. He would go on to score one goal and 10 points in 23 games for Calgary down the stretch.

Before we go any further, here’s Backlund’s AHL stats with a bit of context added:

Heat Total Offense = 148 GF

Backlund Total Points = 32

ES Points = 20

PP Points = 11

% of Total Offense = 21.6%

% at ES = 62.5%

PPG = 0.59

NHLE = 21

Backlund was in on just 21.6% of the Heat’s total offense when he was in the line-up. That’s the lowest ratio of any prospect we’ve looked at yet. He also has the lowest PPG pace and NHL equivalent total. In short, it was a depressingly mediocre season at the AHL level for a player considered to be the Flames best offensive prospect and one who may be relied upon to play at least a supporting role on the club next year.

It should be noted, however, that the Abbotsford Heat were not a capable offensive team this season and it appears from the gamesheets that Backlund wasn’t initially played in a top 6 role to start the season. His regular linemates from the first quarter of the year were Carsen Germyn and Brett Sutter (according to the gamesheets) whereas it appears thar Kris Chuckp, Jamie Lundmark and Jason Jaffray were the go-to scorers for Playfair to start the season. Due to the Heat’s constant injury issues (as well as the erratic movement of Lundmark in and out of the line-up), Backlund’s linemates were never particularly consistent. Later in the season he seemed to play with Chucko and David Van Der Gulik and even appeared with pugilists Ryley Grantham and Pete Vandermeer on occassion. During the Olympic break, Backlund went on a season-best 10 game tear where he managed 5 goals, 10 points and 37 shots on net. During that time, it seems he was playing more with Jason Jaffray at both ES and on the PP which suggests "first line" role, thus the increase in points. A pessimist might say that Backlund was riding the coattails of the team’s best player (Jaffray led the Heat in just about every meaningful category), while an optimist might say that Backlund responded as much to the increased role as to the improved linemate(s).

I’m personally ambivalent when it comes to Backlund. I’ve seen him both good and bad. He’s dominated during WJC tournaments and he looked head and shoulders better than anyone at the one-off Oilers/Canucks/Flames rookie tournament that was held a couple of summers ago. He also looked fairly capable with the big team this year, at times flashing the hands, vision and creativity that have marked many of his scouting reviews. That said, his results at various pro levels (both in Sweden and in North America) don’t suggest a high ceiling. He struggled in Europe and failed to dominate the AHL in 2009-10. One begins to wonder why Backlund can present so well at times (enough to convince the typcally hard-hearted decision makers in Calgary to usher him to the front of the prospect line) and yet can’t seem to knock the ball out of the park at the lower levels.

To further muddy the waters, Backlund gathered 182 shots on goal in just 54 contests for an average of about 3.4/game. That was far and away the best rate on the team and it implies that his low goal total wasn’t for lack of opportunities. His SH% of 8% is on the lower end of what can reasonably be expected of a capable forward (most are at 10% or higher) meaning it likely isn’t a true indication of his abilities. So, again, we have arrows pointing in different directions.

I’d bet a large sum of money that Backlund is going to get a fair shake to make noise for the Flames next year. I’m far less certain, however, that he’s going to be capable of seizing the opportunity.

  • I’m still pretty high on Backlund actually. Mostly because he’s the one I’ve had the most opportunity to see him play (albeit not live) and I see improvement. Pre-season he looked like a boy amougst men when he got the late season call he didn’t look like that anymore.

    He’s not a legit top 6 forward at this point in time but based on what we saw in the final third of the season I’d have no problem pencilling him onto the third line center slot.

  • Graham

    backlund’s signature move is a surprise’thread-the-needle’ style pass from behind the net to a cocked-and-loaded winger inches from the crease. calgary’s problem (and no doubt abbotsford’s as well, with their dodgy cast of characters) is that there are far too few real “finishers” in our lineup. oh, and rarely anyone crashing the net to shovel in the garbage….

    backlund to cammalleri would have been ideal, methinks. perhaps he and dawes can find some chemistry ? i think the kid could be good. i just wonder what number he’ll be wearing in 10/11 and whether i should get a jersey that says “mickis” on the back.

    realistically, it would be a nice alternate to the “gio” jersey if the flames do, infact, make the retro third in a ladies cut.

    • Grant F

      Potentially the biggest problem with the Flames. As far as shooters, there’s Iggy, then Dawes, Stajan, and Langkow to a lesser extent, and then? RBQ is a decent shooter, but there are too many times that he’s completely whiffed on a nice pass or just flat-out missed an open net from six feet away. I’d say that both White and Gio are better than the majority of the forwards, and while it’s nice to have d-men who can shoot, part of their ranking in the franchise is a consequence of having a pretty stone-handed team.

      I know Iggy was basically a corsi black hole last season, and people might scoff at the idea, but I think he should be played with Backlund again next season. Gives Backlund someone to pass to, Iggy someone to benefit from offensively, and a line that can be partially sheltered while Langkow’s line does the heavy lifting.

  • good article kent. i have tempered my enthusiasm for backlund. i also agree that the boyd trade was eh? i liked boyd and he is still young im not saying it was horrible but maybe he could have been one of the people to play with backlund and develope a line as well a player. i think the next two years will tell the tale of what the flames have in backlund. i hope he can blossom into a talented offensive threat. cheers

  • Kent, I am not sure you have painted a complete picture of Backlund, he was a + player with the Flames and pretty good at faceoffs. Was he trading off some of his offensive stats to become better defensively? No where in your article you discuss whether or not he is evolving into a more complete player and thus sacrificing some of his offensive stats. Maybe this is difficult to do with limited data.

    • It’s purely supposition to say that Backlund’s offensive stats suffered because he was concentrating on becoming better defensively.

      I also reject the general notion that offensive stats must necessarily suffer for a player to become “more complete”. You’ll find that most young players see a general improvement in their all around play and their offensive numbers concurrently.

      In addition, most offensive difference makers start out being offensive difference makers at lower levels as well, which is why I find his lack of notable stats in both Sweden and the AHL as red flags. I assume that’s the role the team envisions for Backlund long-term and it’s concerning he hasn’t really done it elsewhere to date (aside from half a season in junior).

      That said, I’ve always liked what I’ve seen out of Backlund and the disconnect between my eyes and the results is what makes me ambivalent about his future and not outright pessimistic.

  • Graham

    Given that Backlund must be either the top or top 1A prospect, a fairly sobering but fair assessment of his potential.
    It seems that one of the major weaknesses with the Flames organization is player development.
    To many Flames picks seem to plateau far below their ‘true’ potential, which could mean their potential was a/over rated, or b/ something in the system is affecting their development.
    Could it be that we are impacting the naturally offensive players with this ‘to make the club you must be solid in your own end’ approach. Player and player; Lombardi, Boyd…just seem to loose their way in Flamesland, but often end up being decent players elsewhere.
    However, we still have hope for Backlund, third line center is ok for now, but the clock starts ticking.. this guys needs to step up over the next couple of years. Lombardi is gone because management didn’t think he was second line material. History tends to repeat itself!

  • maimster

    I’m in the minority, but I didn’t really like what I saw from Backlund as a Flame. Sure, he looked like he played hard and cared, but I didn’t see a ton of finish, or great offensive instincts. I don’t see a lot of upside with him to be honest.

    I also agree that saying his offensive output suffers because he’s trying to play a more complete game is a specious argument. One leads to the other.

    Perhaps, if he gets a chance to play with some truly talented offensive players (as WI mentions, Cammy may have been a good example) he’ll put up some numbers. But overall…eh…

  • Grant F

    The most encouraging thing about Backlund is his ability to play the game at a high tempo. I’m convinced this is one of the main skills that separates quality NHLers from the rest.

    Backlund can see his line-mates, pass and unleash a blistering shots – all in full flight.

    That’s a big-time tool and reason to feel good about his future.

  • Grant F

    I agree that the numbers don’t speak in Backlund’s favor. Notables coming out of Sweden like Backstrom and the Sedin’s were closer to a point a game, and that was in the Elite League (a step up from where Backlund was playing).

    Backlund was around 0.33 points per game. He played with notable Patrick Berglund (now with the Blues). During the same period Berglund was over a point a game (1.3 per game in his final two years).

    But all isn’t lost. He had similar numbers to Huselius in his first 4-seasons. Huselius started to light it up in his 5th season and has maintained respectable numbers since then. They have similar play styles.

    For all of the reasons you listed I don’t take to much from the numbers with his time with the Heat last season. I think it speaks for him that despite the numbers he has been singled out by the Flames organization.

    So far I have liked what I have seen from Backlund. I don’t think he is the next Backstrom or Sedin. However, I think he can be a Huselius type player with a better defensive upside and the ability to play wing and centre.

    If he does stick with the club his creativity and play-making ability is something the Flames badly need.

  • CitizenFlame

    I thought that I read near the beginning of the season that Backlund struggled with his mental strength and the team had hired a sports psychologist to help him along. I think that is why he seems to struggle on the farm. He seems to struggle trying to fight through the adversity. I think that was in the Calgary Sun.

    Beyond that I don’t think his numbers support the coddling that he is thus far receiving but I have to remind myself that last year was his rookie season as a pro and it is a big jump from junior.

  • CitizenFlame

    Backlund was horrible in transition in his time with the Flames. Just about every promising rush he was on ended up in him taking an easy shot from outside the scoring area.

    I don’t remember who said that he was a guy who could use his linemates but that was flat-out not the case in his tenure here.

    It was really disappointing and frustrating to watch. I think it would be unreasonable to expect Backlund to be a complete player at this point. But, if he actually had real promise as a future difference-maker, I would have expected him to have better offensive chops.

    On the other hand, Kent (and RCleave before him) brings up an excellent point, he did get off a lot of shots in the minors and there were a few games IIRC where he outchanced third-line opposition handily.

    On the cycle he was average, certainly he was interested in the puck battle (he’s no Bertuzzi in that regard) but his ability to actually win the battle leaves something to be desired.

    That aspect of his game should pick up, it inevitably does as young players mature. When he gets to that point in his career, though, I don’t think we can expect a guy who can play a significant scoring role. There’s still hope, and a good bit of it – but the reasonable expectation is gone baby gone.

  • CitizenFlame

    Grant F puts it plainly and agreeably, the kid has all the tools. At this point…. stats mean nothing in predicting what type of hockey player he evolves into.

    He has an abundance of heart and his character and similarly there was another swedish centerman who had the same abundance of heart and character by the name of Daniel Alfredsson.

    I think this kid is special and that’s what flames management are betting on it so why not Kent? We need to set the standard for treating our imports differently as they could just as easily stay at home as opposed to playing in the AHL like Boyd.

    Numbers must mean something in projecting a career… Backlund is a first rounder and Alfresson was taken in the 6th. so that means he’s going to be better right? (tounge in cheek)

  • CitizenFlame

    Grant F puts it plainly and agreeably, the kid has all the tools. At this point…. stats mean nothing in predicting what type of hockey player he evolves into.

    Except they mean a lot, because most players that turn out to be any good in the middle of their career look good early in their career. It’s kind of a logical progression, as foreign as the concept of logic may be at this point in the game.

    He has an abundance of heart and his character and similarly there was another swedish centerman who had the same abundance of heart and character by the name of Daniel Alfredsson.

    Good to see that the cherry has been picked.

    I think this kid is special

    That’s nice. Maybe you should back up that claim with money, because that’s what you’re asking the Flames to do.

  • CitizenFlame

    The most encouraging thing about Backlund is his ability to play the game at a high tempo. I’m convinced this is one of the main skills that separates quality NHLers from the rest.

    Backlund can see his line-mates, pass and unleash a blistering shots – all in full flight.

    I didn’t see this happen at all. Every high-speed transition chance of any quality died on Backlund’s stick. The guy flat-out cannot play the game at the speed of the NHL yet.

  • CitizenFlame

    I’m sure they will back him with money as he pushes his way up the line-up

    Your confidence in Backlund’s unstoppable climb in the NHL is inspiring. You should bet your house on it.

    The concept of “reasonable expectations” is apparently a myth amongst you Calgary Puck posters and Fan960 callers-in.