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.