On Mikael Backlund

UNIONDALE, NY - MARCH 25: Mikael Backlund #60 of the Calgary Flames flips the puck into the offensive zone past Jeff Tambellini #15 of the New York Islanders during an NHL game at the Nassau Coliseum on March 25, 2010 in Uniondale, New York. (Photo by Paul Bereswill/Getty Images)


With the recent news that Daymond Langkow is nearing 100% and is probable to play a majority of the season (if not all 82 games), the chances that Mikael Backlund is inevtiably bound for Abbotsford are good. This will no doubt cause some consternation in a portion of the Flames fanbase. Perhaps not without reason.

The push to develop and promote youngsters in the post-lock-out NHL has a rational basis. It’s something I’ve made noises about in the past; there’s a great deal of potential value to be mined from entry level contracts. In a capped environment, a productive kid can be orders of magnitude more efficient in terms of his contribution-to-cap-hit ratio than a veteran – assuming of course he doesn’t hit all of his bonuses (right Chicago?).

The recent success of franchises boasting young stars has heightened the perceived need for homegrown talent. Toews, Kane, Crosby, Malkin and Ovechkin spring to mind. Stanley Cups and Presidents Trophies have accrued to the clubs with indigenous (rather than mercenary) talent bases – not only is the first three years of s fresh-faced star relatively cheap, it’s a lot easier to keep them around than bid for their talents on the open market. 

Flames fans appetites for a franchise-bred forward stretches beyond general rationales, however. One can point to the teams pitiful goals for total and disappointing finish to the season last year as further impetus to aggressively promote from within, but the reality is the fanbase is starving for fresh talent because the organization has largely failed to draft and develop a forward of note for almost two decades.

Aside from some recent, moderate success stories (David Moss, Matthew Lombardi, Eric Nystrom), the Flames organization has been almost totally unable to internally generate NHL-level forward talent. The picture grows dimmer the higher up the depth chart you climb: only two legitimate, "top six" forwards have been produced by this org since 1990: Cory Stillman (selected  6th overall in 1992) and…Jarome Iginla (11th overall 1995), who wasn’t even drafted by the club. That’s a pretty grim record over a 20 year period (and some 200 draft picks). I haven’t done an exhaustive inquiry into the rate of forward stars yielded from draft choices over that time frame, but I’m guessing the Flames are well below what one could expect from chance alone.

As such, Backlund represents a sort of messianistic bright star of hope. Perhaps a more apt analogy would be an oasis for parched fans wearily trudging through a seemingly endless desert of disappointment and mediocrity. 

The truth is, the hype and expectations surrounding the young center have been grotesquely augmented by this sustained lack of homegrown forward talent. Water is the sweetest wine to the thirsty. However, there’s precious little evidence that Backlund is indeed the sort of talent that can step in and provide value at this point in his development curve. I say this having been a tireless cheerleader and supporter of the kid since he was drafted.The tools are there. The results just aren’t though.

A wash-out in the lesser Swedish pro league (HockeyAllsvenskan) as a teenager, Backlund was capable but not dominant in his AHL debut for the Heat last year (15 goals, 32 points in 54 games). And while his potential was on display at times during his cup-o-coffee with the parent club, the ultimate results of his 24 game audition with Calgary were mostly underwhelming given the circumstances in which he was deployed (soft match-ups, lots of offensive zone draws, etc). With the Flames currently boasting no less than four established NHL centermen (Conroy, Langkow, Jokinen and Stajan) and the ever fading hopes of making noise in the post-season, there’s little reason to expect Backlund to make the leap this year – I can’t detect an internal call to develop him at the NHL level given Sutter’s off-season acquisitions, nor did Backlund convince anyone last year that he was sufficiently beyond the competition at the AHL level anyways.

There’s a possbility that something changes drastically once the puck drops of course: perhaps Mikael takes a step forward and knocks it out of the park for the Heat, all but forcing the decision makers to recall him. Perhaps one of the big boys goes down for an extended period of time and Backlund is able to unambiguously prove his worth in the big leagues (a la David Moss a few years ago). However, given what we know about the player and the Flames situation as a whole, I wouldn’t bet on Backlund having an impact on the 2010-11 Calgary Flames.

  • Greg

    “I haven’t done an exhaustive inquiry into the rate of forward stars yielded from draft choices over that time frame, but I’m guessing the Flames are well below what one could expect from chance alone.”

    That’s something I’d like to see. I feel like we’re pathetic in drafting and development, but sometimes I wonder if that’s just perception. The reality is we’ve never drafted in the top 5, and haven’t had a pick in the top 20 in 7 years either. Is it possible that collective perception is more of a function of our draft position than poor selections? Is there an ‘advanced stat’ we could make to show that? 🙂

    As for Backlund, I don’t foresee him becoming a top line player anymore based on the results he’s produced thus far. But if he can develop into a decent 2nd line player, say 50-60 points with good 2-way play, I think that’s pretty good for a #24 pick.

    • Here’s something I did a couple of years ago on the subject. I looked at the first 3 rounds over 10 years. There’s a bunch of data there, but here’s the relevant bit:

      Not surprisingly, Choosing in the top 5 meant a 98% chance of yielding an NHL player. Of the 55 players picked, only 3 failed to become NHL regulars (Alex Volchkov, Pavel Brendl and Jason Bosignore). Twenty-eight of the 52 went on to become stars (51%).

      A top 10 choice was only slightly worse. 82 of the 110 players became contributors (75%) and 35 of them became stars (31%). The probability of getting an NHLer within the top 15 dropped down to 68% (112 of 165) with a 27% chance of grabbing a star (45/112).

      So, yeah, quality drops off dramatically as the first round progresses. That said, since 1990, the Flames have had 21 first round picks, 13 of them between 6 and 20. They managed to pick a couple of quality defenders in there (Phanuef/Morris) a couple of mediocre goalies (Kidd/Krahn) and nothing better than middling forwards (Kobasew probably being the best of the bunch).

      At some point you’d think the Flames would pick a future star forward by dumb luck alone, but…

  • Gange

    2000 Draft http://www.hockeydb.com/ihdb/draft/nhl2000e.html

    2001 Draft http://www.hockeydb.com/ihdb/draft/nhl2001e.html

    2002 Draft http://www.hockeydb.com/ihdb/draft/nhl2002e.html

    2003 Draft http://www.hockeydb.com/ihdb/draft/nhl2003e.html

    2004 Draft http://www.hockeydb.com/ihdb/draft/nhl2004e.html

    2005 Draft http://www.hockeydb.com/ihdb/draft/nhl2005e.html

    I won’t post any other years at this time but I shake my head at all the talent left on the table. Some were homeruns some were just solid talent.

    What they ended up drafting was more often than not just flotsam.

    May I suggest that Ryan Getzlaf would have looked great in the Flaming C especially with today’s woes. Or Jeff Carter, or Zach Parise, or Corey Perry…and that’s just 2003

    I guess my point is that if they had the scouting in place there would have been better reads on these kids. Hindsight is 20/20 but you would think even through luck they’d get more NHL calibre players

    I’d love to see a comparison of draft records and see how Calgary fares in NHL players playing more than one season for the team that drafted them

  • Just in conjunction, i’ve always thought the 2 worst teams in terms of drafting are the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Calgary Flames.

    Here’s what I found since the 1990 draft. Yup those are the only 2 of any real note that have been brought up by the Flames. Since then the Flames have drafted about 13 D-men in the first 3 rounds, only Dion made any time of real impact, 35+ in subsequent rounds, no real impact players. They did surprisingly make over 30 picks of forwards in the first 3 rounds (most in the 2nd and 3rd) with only really 1 or 2 players of note, 80+ in the other rounds. There were 4 goalies in the first 3, (3 of them in the first), a couple have seen NHL action mostly as an emergency call up, 13 in the other rounds.

    Interestingly in 1997 they had 6 in the first 3 rounds, all but 1 (a goalie) were forwards, 2 never saw the NHL. Collectively, they played 74 games scored 8 goals and had 15 assists.

    In the 1996 draft the Flames selected Ryan Wade, who never saw the NHL and passed over Thomas Kaberle who was taken 2 spots later. But a less than 1% success of creating long term NHL players isnt very good. You would hope that at least out of every 2 years, 1 player would become an everyday player with maybe 1 player in 4 years would be a good player.

    Also, of those about 200 players drafted 2 of them were Sutters, both in late rounds.
    The Flames do need better amateur scouting and the status quo wont cut it.

  • Matty Franchise Jr

    Somewhere, sometime (but I don’t remember where or when) I read something along the lines of:

    If a team just stuck with the NHL’s central scouting report, it would fall into just about the averge of drafting. Meaning that Calgary’s scouting department has hurt this team over the years by drafting players who didn’t turn out to be good, just like central scouting said they wouldn’t.

    Of course, I could be imagining the whole thing.

    • I don’t know if the experiment has been carried out, but Colby Cosh suggested such a thing in relation to the Oilers drafting a few years back.

      It’d be interesting to do a systemic inquiry to see which teams are able to outperform the consensus draft lists.

  • Yes, the Flames Draft record is horrible. I can’t tell you how annoyed I was when Sutter said that Karil Kabanov was the kind of player you only take when you have an excess amount of top 100 picks… um’ why? if your top pick is a third rounder with a statistical likelihood of being a NHL’er at around 5% you have to assume that in all probability the guy you take is going to bust so why not take the guy with top of the line-up ceiling?

    It really grinds my gears when I see the Sutter apolagists declaring that he’s had to draft “safe” picks… no guys, if he were drafting “safe” picks we’d be seeing a higher ratio of pick to legit NHL player (even if they were of the 3-4 line/4-6 d-man variety)… instead all he’s been doing is drafting mid-low ceiling guys without, seemingly, a higher floor.

    • the-wolf

      Passing on a guy with consensus top 5 talent in the 3rd round was ignorant. Especially with 2 picks there.

      It’d be interesting to compare a team that swings for the fences vs. one that plays it safe to see who has more success. Hard comparison to come by though over any length of time.

      As for NHL Central Scouting, you’d probably do even better as a team with the THN Draft Preview.

  • Matty Franchise Jr

    Unless backlund wows people at training camp, he’ll be sent to abbotsford. There’s always the probability that one of the four steady centers (joker, connie, stajan and lanks) could get injured for an extended amount of time, then, Backlund would surely be the call up guy. Maybe if even one of the wingers gets injured but thats very doubtful.

    Maybe with our new scouts we signed this year , we can get something done! UGH! It kills me to see all of the wasted drafts, now i know why sutter gives away all his draft picks (he still shouldn’t though)

  • the-wolf

    it frustrates me to no end that old man conroy will get playing time over mickis not because he’s better (which is debatable), but simply because he’s CHEAPER.

    this team is so cap-pressed, that i’m not even sure mickis’ll be the first call-up if someone goes down with injury. there just won’t be the cap space left for replacement players of his ilk (or pelech’s) without some SERIOUS salary restructuring in the next weeks.

    i’m lookin’ at you, staotalik.

    • Oyo

      The difference between Conroy and Backlund, though, is that you can throw Connie to the wolves without having to worry. Even if Backlund has the potential to handle that kind of pressure, I think most people can agree he hasn’t reached it, and full sink-or-swim is a risky way to develop a prospect.

      • Oyo

        agreed, we don’t wanna just throw away our top prospect. By the way, I don’t know how close Wahl and Nemisz are to making the jump, or if they even will. wat do u guys think

      • robficiur

        The difference between Conroy and Backlund, though, is that you can throw Connie to the wolves without having to worry. Even if Backlund has the potential to handle that kind of pressure, I think most people can agree he hasn’t reached it, and full sink-or-swim is a risky way to develop a prospect.

        agreed to a certain extent…. but at some point you have to give your draftees a chance and shake loose the vets (even the good ones like conny). i’m not saying this is mickis’ year, but i’m suggesting that actual in-game NHL experience is something that the flames rarely give their youngsters, and is mandatory for the natural growth of a club.

        • If the Flames had two, real, solid comp centers ahead of Backlund on the depth chart, it probably wouldn’t be an issue this year. But they don’t…Stajan and Jokinen will be given as much cherry circumstances as possible.

          Mark my words, Conroy is going to make the team and Brent is going to bury him. Wouldn’t surprise me if he has the lowest zone start ratio of any center by end of the season.

          Backlund is only 21. If he can beat up the kids on the farm this year, he can set himself up for a the jump.

  • Oyo

    # 10 Calgary Eric Nystrom
    # 11 Buffalo Keith Ballard
    # 12 Washington Steve Eminger
    # 13 Washington Alexander Semin
    # 14 Mtl. Canadiens Chris Higgins

    2002 draft.

    dont get me wrong i liked nystrom but good lord.

  • Oyo

    Thank you for this article on Backlund.

    You’re assessment is dead on.

    He did not show that he was NHL ready last year.

    The AHL is definitely where he should be until he is ready.

    • JohnQPublic

      I dunno, I think he did show that he’s NHL ready… he didn’t show that he was top 6/tough comp ready but I thought he showed that he could play in the NHL.

      • Oyo

        He IS NHL ready, I agree 100 percent. He should go on the third line, unless thats the ‘heavy lifting line’ thats not what Backlund does. I really hate the Sutters for re-signing Jokinen. Since its only for two years, if he does not whats expected, he won’t be resigned, and Connie is going to retire after this season. There’ll definately be openings after this season.

  • robficiur

    The real question is what is best for Michael Backlund’s career.

    If he was not a point per game player in the AHL in one year. 32 points in 52 AHL Games… That is okay, but not dominating.

    Realistically most players are going to get more AHL points than NHL points. So based on last year Backlund in 52 NHL games would get somehwere between 20-25 points.

    He won’t get power play time in Calgary. He will be third line with limited offensive linemates.

    However, in the AHL he would have a second season to estbliash his skill and build his confidence. In 2012, he would have the confidencen and skill to make the NHL as a second line center. (maybe) He is 21 now… that would make him 22. Not ideal but still doable.

    In conclusion I think of Jimmmy Carson. Only two players have scored 100 NHL goals before they were 20 years old. Jimmy Carson did that with the LA Kings. By the time he was 25 he had lost all his confidence (for whatever reason) and was trying to make it wherever…

    Better to build the player slow and get it right than the destroy his confidence by rushing him.

  • Section 216

    Most if not all Hockey previews have Backlund in the Calder hunt.

    I think he’d be valuable on the Flames, just because he brings that youthful skill type of player the Flames have been lacking. I hope he’ll be in Flames colors come October 7th and I think he’ll show enough at Training Camp and in the preseason to show the Sutter Brain Trust he deserves to be here.

  • While I want to believe Backlund has the tools, I hate how the Flames squander these prospects in the A or putting them on the lower lines and stunt their growth. I dont’ think he is a superstar but I believe he has the ability to be a top 6 forward. Unfortunately for cap reasons he’ll be playing in Abbotsford because Darryl cant’ manage the cap.

  • I don’t know why this kid’s numbers are what people evaluate to give final word on his near future. The kid played major third line minutes
    on the farm in order to get seasoned and when he played with Jarome he was almost a point a game. He may play wing if he has to but Sutters know hockey and they see current potential in this kid that most of you don’t. Conroy can take a bow with his horrible plus minus and lack of scoring to balance it out Mark my words he does not make this team out of camp.

    • Final word? Stop attacking straw men. We’re talking about his chances of making on impact on this team this coming season as a 21 year old NA professional sophomore.

      No one’s debating his potential to be an NHL player in the long run. I have ranked him as the Flames top prospect in several spaces, including Hockey’s Future.

      And I’ll happily bet you that Conroy makes the team out of camp.

    • Greg

      I don’t think it’ll be after 9 games, but yes, I could definitely see him being a healthy-scratch/farm-hand by the end of the season in favor of some younger blood. Will still be nice to see him get his silver stick though.

      For those still lamenting Kabanov, I’m not a Sutter defender (any more) but I’ve said before, there were 60+ picks made before where every other GM passed on him too, and it says a lot that the Islanders were the team that finally bit. I don’t think you can harp on Sutter for that. Now as for everything else he’s done in 2010, be my guest…

  • icedawg_42

    What more does Backlund have to do??? He played his heart out to make an impression on the Flames only to be brushed aside for who? 38 year old Conroy? He’s already on his second year of his contract and when it comes time to renew his contract he’s gonna harness resentment toward the club and milk them! If he doesn’t play this year it may send the wrong message to him and affect his progression as a player. Maybe.

  • Greg

    Sounds like Dawes has finally been picked up… 2 way – $600K (or $100 in the A) with Atlanta. Boy am I ever glad Sutter bought out this contract, that $250K we were over paying for him was killing our cap position. Oh wait, now we’re overpaying him $142K… for 2 more years. ???

    What would be perfect now is if Atlanta sent him to the farm, and the flames claimed him off waivers. We’d save about $100K on the cap, and we could add to our collection of former players we ran out of town and then brought back for cheaper this season. 🙂

    Interestingly, Potulny signed for a very similar contract today too, and his stats were nearly identical, so that must be the right number for that type of player in this market. Puzzling that Sutter could spot that price correctly, yet completely blow it on the Staotalik contract.

    On a more serious note, I didn’t realize Dawes’ shooting percentage was nearly 15% this past season. How come no one has commented on that and a likely regression-to-the-mean for him this year?

    • Greg

      It’s likely that his shooting percentage will drop somewhere near his career mean next year (11.5%), but that wasn’t the reason we were angry when he got bought out. He played pretty tough minutes a lot of the season and didn’t get his head bashed in, which is pretty reasonable when you are paying the guy 850K. He also had the best relative CORSI of full time forwards and had a positive penalty differential (+9).

      • Greg

        Don’t get me wrong, I wish the Flames still had Dawes, but the guy spent the majority of the season with Calgary’s two best possession forwards. You could probably put Ivanans with Langkow and Bourque and his advanced stats would look reasonable. Good value for the contract, but I feel as though people might be overstating his abilities a little.

        • That’s a fair argument, although I think the Ivanans claim is a bit much.

          Dawes was good value for the money and, at 25, had the potential to improve. He wasn’t ever going to be a heavy weight or anything though.

  • Danny Lawson

    Backlund has yet show he belongs with the Flames and with the clubs current salary cap problems, he’s a player that can be easily moved to Abbostford. The Flames prospects cupboard is very marginal at best and will take a few years to be stocked. IMO the Flames are an injury away to a key player, i.e. Kipper or Jarome, from finding themselves in Oiler-like trouble this season. Should that happen, the club could be a contender for a lottery pick which could mean, a blue chip prospect.

  • PrairieStew

    I am all for Backlund staying in Abbotsford – because – as I said at M & G, with the centres on the roster now he’d be playing on the 4th line with Thing One and Thing Two getting maybe 6 minutes a game, and that is nonsensical. If one of the top 3 guys gets hurt, then OK – bring him up, but I’d almost prefer Stone to fill in if it is short term. I’d like to see Backlund get 20 + minutes for a whole year so it can be determined if he is a player or not.

    The secondary thing is there is bunch of new guys in Abby this year all in that 20-22 age bracket – perhaps they can grow together and make the jump over the next 1-3 years.

  • MC Hockey

    Hi Kent, Very good article. If the first 20 games such, I wish the Flames would go into re-build mode and dump about 5 veteran forwards and 2 vet D let Backlund, Nemisz, Cameron, Wahl, Brodie, and others play already!