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.