YAY OPTIMISM – Mikael Backlund as MR. BRIGHTSIDE

 

 

One player that the Flames management and fans will want to keep a close eye on in this upcoming season is defiitely Mikael Backlund. Being touted as Calgary’s best prospect, it’s time for Mikael to make the jump from a prospect to a fully fledged role player. Entering his third year with Calgary, this season just may provide the opportunity for the young Swede to show just what he can do, with a little ambition and a lot of hard work.

Last season Backlund started on the fourth line, centering for a carousel of wingers, while the Flames tinkered with a carousel of centres for the top line. One by one, the rotation of Jokinen, Stajan and Morrison were cycled through playing with Iginla and Tanguay. With Backlund lacking the experience and the Flames needing instant chemistry, it seemed like Mikael was going to be in tough to get the chance to earn his stripes.

Centre Games Played TOI/60 Corsi/60 Zone Start Shoot %
M. Backlund 73 10.43 14.89 54.3 7.49
M. Stajan 76 12.31 5.84 53 8.88
O. Jokinen 79 13.90 -0.82 52.9 7.81
B. Morrison 66 12.01 -2.95 50.7 10.16

Backlund’s season totals are absolutely something for the Flames and their fans to be encouraged about. Given that he played two to three minutes less than any other centre, his corsi number blows away the rest of his peers. In fact, his 14.89 was second only to Tim Jackman at 16.31 for the entire team. The next closest skater was David Moss at 8.26.

So where do the Flames go from here?

One of the most talked about subject here in Flames Nation has been the possible line combinations for 2011-12. There are many that believe there are certain lines that are evident from the second half of last season that just worked; and should be left alone. Perhaps the most commonly approved of line is that of Glencross – Jokinen – Moss. One of the most effective combinations for the Flames and was often credited for destroying other team third lines. The other favourable combination seemed to lean towards Bourque and Langkow, reunited with the belief that the elder centre makes Rene a better player and his return to the lineup full time, might also prompt the return of Bourque’s play as an offensive threat.

That leaves two lines without a centreman and three centres without lines? In Kent’s article about Brent Sutter, he talks about the more hands on control the coach will have on how he deploys his lines. He also discusses the Flames’ task of finding a suitable fit at centre for Iginla and Tanguay, and who, with an abundance of options might be the right candidate. Looking at Backlund’s underlying possession numbers, he seems to be the right ‘kid’ for the job. Consider this…

Games Shooting %
First 27 Games 6.6
Middle 27 Games 8.6
Last 28 Games 8.5

You can see that even with the slow start and a fourth line placement, Backlund found his bearings, resulting in an increase in his shooting percentage in the middle and last thirds of the season. The 2% jump from the first to the second third of the season could be viewed as him settling in as a permanent roster player. At times he has been able to show flashes of skill. As his confidence in that role grows, so too should his shot totals.

So where does Mike go from here?

Honestly, the kid deserves a shot to centre the top line with Iginla and Tanguay. It would be a complete waste of time and development to continue to bury Backlund on the fourth line. He is a rising talent in an aging population. This year can be an incredible step for him developmentally. It's no secret that the Flames have not generated many positive results when deploying Iginla's line in a PvP situation. The fact that the Flames have found positive results when choosing to shelter the Iginla line, represents an opportunity to further Backlund's development without throwing him to the wolves. After all, it's not as if Mikael is holding back the two big wingers, as we can see from here.

 

Player

Total Chances

With Backlund

Without Backlund

 

CF

CA

%CF

CF

CA

CF%

CF

CA

CF%

Jarome Iginla

430

371

53.7%

72

53

57.6%

358

318

53.0%

Alex Tanguay

354

301

54.0%

53

33

61.6%

301

268

52.9%

Both Iginla and Tanguay played better with Backlund than they did with any other centre on the line. What made even a better case for the kid to stay on this line is that he was able to maintain his elevated shooting percentage. Backlund hasn't hit lofty percentages yet in his young career, but he has shown a potential trend towards a formidable SH%. If his skill level is higher than what he has shown so far, then we can probably expect his shooting percentage to improve over the long run.

If the team is indeed in a transitional state this season, and looking for a few guys like Giordano and Backlund to be there when the proverbial torch gets passed, this is the ideal environment for Backlund. He will be sheltered to a certain degree but will also bolster his confidence and undoubtedly, his shooting percentages. We have already seen the trend moving towards Giordano on defence. It's time for the kid from Sweden to open up his eager eyes.. He's Mr. Brightside!

  • I agree Vintage, I think Backlund should be given a shot at playing with Iggy and Tangs. It will be interesting to see how he handles himself the first month of the season, because although he had fantastic numbers with them last year, they played alot of weaker teams during that time, if I remember correctly they played the Avs and Oil multiple times. I hope he plays well, because he is one of the Flames few hopeful prospects.

    • Vintage Flame

      I hope so too schevv. I agree with you that the first month of the season will be a telling one for Mik.

      If he can come out confident and build on what he did last year while with Iggy and Tangs, then he’ll take a big step forward. even if he is on the top line, he’ll still see sheltered play, so if goes right, it could be a win-win.

  • Vintage Flame

    I don’t think Backlund is ever going to be a true top line guy. I would rather see developing against the tougher forwards but weaker D in a second line role.

    I would also rather see him in a situation where he is driving the play more rather then coasting after Iggy and Tanguay.

    However, with the high number of 2 line centers there may not be room for him to helm a second or third line and he may be our best option on the first.

    • Well, the Flames first line isn’t really going to be a “true” top line in the sense of that term. Assuming things go to plan, that is. If Langkow lands with Iginla and Sutter plays them against the big boys, then who knows how it will shake out.

  • Vintage Flame

    Hey Vintage, Killer article(forgive the pun).
    We are on the same page on this one. Whether he should be that top line or 2nd line is a mute point. He’s the best young centre the Flames got & we must will this to work. Give him the year there, throught the highs, the lows, the slumps and the streaks, at the end of the year he will be a way better player sticking with Tangs & Iggy.

    • Vintage Flame

      “Hey Vintage, Killer article (forgive the pun). “

      Haha. Too funny. I actually didn’t catch the pun until I saw it the 2nd time… oops

      I would like to see him get some decent time with the top line as well.. at least to give him the chance. As Kent said, it may not be bad for him if he played the 2nd line with Moss and Glencross, if that was an option as well, but if those two end up being a third line, then I’m hesitant to see Backlund there.

      As I mentioned to Tach, I want to see if this kid can handle significant minutes and playing tougher opposition. He may get roasted some nights, but I think he’s too talented to leave on a third or fourth line. Hopefully he learns from the mistakes he will no doubt make. Take the lessons and become a better player. Who knows, maybe if he plays on the 2nd line, he is more apt to develop into a stronger two way player as mentioned by SinCity and Section205.

      • Vintage Flame

        Ha, I thought you did that deliberately, it’s one of their bettter songs. Chinook said it best. This is kind of the last year before the reboot button gets hit, what have we got to lose. The gain of cap space at the end of this year means Feaster will be able to rebalance and have a chance to allocate funds in a different manor. Meaning, that 2nd line could be wide open for Backlund to land with some new faces or perhaps Feaster trades or signs a future Flames star like Parise that Backlund fits perfectly with. Who knows, but Backlund is one of our futures, to put Morrison there over him is being short sighted & to put Stajan there is just about as bad. Stajan will be out of town first chance Feaster gets, why would we give him 1st line experience over our future kid like Backlund. He needs top 2 line minutes and experience this year. This is a contract year for him as well, so I think the incentive will be there.

        • Vintage Flame

          “Ha, I thought you did that deliberately, it’s one of their bettter songs.”

          Oh the reference is deliberate, I just missed it the first time you said ‘Killer Article’.. My bad.

          As much as I hate to do it as a fan, I’m going to give Stajan some benefit of the doubt. Not sure if it’s due to the fact he CAN’T be any worse than he was last year.. Or, the fact that it sounds like he is making a real commitment to redeeming his play with the Flames. He is working out with Gary Roberts and everyone knows that automatically should entail progress… Hopefully.

          As for Morrison, I don’t want to see him on the top line. I think he will make a good swing player that is good for the fourth line with the ability to switch over to the wing or move up in case of injury.

          If Backlund can play 1st or 2nd line minutes it will be a bonus in his development. If he drops to 3rd and 4th line minutes, it’s a waste of his talent and in my opinion, there are thoughts that he doesn’t fit in the Flames system. Not something I want to see or hear.

  • Vintage Flame

    Two things.

    First, I love the statistical analysis, but this “Given that he played two to three minutes less than any other centre, his corsi number blows away the rest of his peers.” does not make any sense.

    The Corsi given is a rate per time on ice, meaning it has already been adjusted for his time on ice, making the fact that he played less totally irrelevant to the discussion.

    The more important to numbers to note for Backlund’s corsi rate are his 54.3% zone start (third easiest amongst forwards who played at least 40 games) and his QualComp (-0.630 / Corsi RelQualComp (-0.168) each third easiest (amongst forwards who played at least 40 games). While a smashing corsi rate is nothing to take away from a rookie, he did it while being sheltered both by position and opposition. (As an aside, while I understand the general difference in the calculation of QualComp and CorsiRel QualComp I have never heard a definitive explanation of which more accurately describes the quality of competition. I find that from team to team you get all kind of weird discrepancies.)

    Which brings me to my second point, which is if he is going to play with Iginla and Tanguay he is going to have to face some tough competition. As much as many people hope that this duo will be sheltered, they play too many minutes and are too good (plus half your games are on the road) to get away from all the top defensive pairings and forward lines. While I hope my skepticism is misplaced, I still find it hard to believe that Sutter is going to have Backlund lining up against the top centres of the West.

    • That’s all very sensible.

      As you say, you can only shelter Iginla so much. They’ll play against good players at some point. Backlund might be two or three years from actually being able to face that type of competition for real. Still, it’s preferable to playing 10 minutes a night on the 4th line I think. Ideally, I’d like to see him between Moss and Glencross on the third line, which is also possible I guess.

      • SmellOfVictory

        I think he’ll be able to handle minutes with Iggy and Tanguay quite well, especially if they do get the cherry ZS. Backs might not be a heavy-hitter yet (and I do think he will be at some point), but he’s good enough that I still think he’s the best option to play between them if they’re deployed in that manner. Langkow and Moss are both good at getting the puck into the offensive zone/keeping it there, but I don’t think once they’re there they’ll be as good at getting it into the net as Backlund will be.

    • Vintage Flame

      You bring up some valid points. I don’t think anyone is going to dispute the level to which Backlund was sheltered from ‘tough minutes’. What I was trying to get across was that for much of the off-season there has been talk of what to expect from this team.

      As I said, if this is a transitional year for the Flames before they begin to unload contracts, age and pursue a new direction, then it is the perfect time to also transition Backlund into a more meaningful role.

      Undoubtedly, if he plays with Iginla and Tanguay, then he will be sheltered to a degree.. but as you said, it would be impossible to shelter him 100% of the time, especially on the road. I agree, and you know what? I’m okay with it too.

      I look at Backlund under the same microscope as Giordano. A lot of people said with Reggie gone, they weren’t sure if Gio could play 1-2 minutes. My reply to that was that if he was going to be the future of this defence and probably a future Captain, then I WANT to know he CAN play those minutes. This year was a chance for him to show that, and I think it is a very similar situation for Backlund. He may not be 100% ready.. but I would like to know if we can see signs that someday he’ll be up for the role.

      • ChinookArchYYC

        I agree with your argument in putting Backlund on the first line. I see this season the same way you do, which is the last year before the big RE-BOOT. So, let’s get this guy the kind of minutes he needs to see, while sheltering the line in the offensive zone and staying away from PvP situations. More importantly, I would really like to see Jokinen center for Moss Glencross, and I hope Langkow finds more magic with Bourque. This leaves Backlund on the first or fourth line, and he seems like a better fit then the remaining options for the #1 line.

        At the end of the day, I suspect Sutter will use the #1 center job as a reward to each of his options – yes including Stajen.

  • Vintage Flame

    VF: Great article

    The kid is an artist. I believe MB is destined for greatness. I think he needs to be given every chance to shine and I think he will be given that. I think he has all the skills required, it just a matter of his confidence catching up to his God given gift. I expect big things for Mikey.

  • icedawg_42

    Im hoping Backs gets a serious look on some serious minutes this year. The organization needs to know if he is going to hack it. From what I watched in his last year of junior – he’s going to be just fine! He just needs the opportunity.

    • Vintage Flame

      I remember us sitting at the Dome last year talking about this very situation Dawg. Both of us talked about what a plus it was with Backlund’s shot. The kid has a very impressive snap shot that he can fire off in a split second.

      What I would like to see is him get into an early rhythm with Iginla and Tanguay and develop a strong confidence to shoot the puck. If he can do that, then I’ll think we’ll see a significant increase in his shooting percentages. His avg shot distance was about 33 feet. If he can get the puck in a little close with some great passing from Tanguay, then the percentage will see increases.

      Just my opinion, but I think the kid has some talent we haven’t seen yet.

  • Section205

    Great article. It is the right time for Backlund to take a big step forward and also the right time for the team to give him a chance.

    Tach does make some good points. I think I will manage my expectations of Backlund in that role. I also like Sincity’s idea of developing a true two-way player to drive the play.

    But I still think Backlund has earned his share of opportunity with Iggy and Tangs when the situation appears to be favourable (weaker teams, home ice advantage etc). He also deserves a chance to take a few lumps against better competition. There will be some rough nights.

    The way Brent shuffles lines it is certain that Langkow, Olli, Stajan, Morrison and Backlund will all spend some time with Iggy and Tanguay.

  • Section205

    @SinCity1976 and Section205

    I see where you guys are coming from in saying that Backlund would benefit from playing tough minutes, but I think Backlund has the potential to become a legit scorer in this league. He has a load of offensive skill, he’s got a great shot, he’s got speed, I may be crazy but I can see him becoming a 60-70 and even possibly 80 point guy sometime down the road. I think playing with two veterans in Iggy and Tangs who are great offensive players will help him alot, and as Tach said, it’s not like he will be completely sheltered. I think for him to be a 60-70 maybe 80 point guy, he’s got to play those offensive minutes more than the defensive minutes to develop into the scoring #1 centre I think he can be.

  • Section205

    Backlund is 22 years old, has fewer then 100 games in the NHL, and played 10:40 of sheltered 5 on 5 per night last season. He is also not a guy that is projected by most to ever be a top line guy.

    It might be a bit much to expect him to play 15-minutes a night against the best D in the league for an 82+ game stretch next season.

    People give Stajan a hard time. Understandable after last season. But this is a guy who has put up the minutes against tough competition and been successful at it. He is probably our best bet to helm the top line.

    It may not be the popular opinion as Flames nation (in general, not the site) have embraced Jokinen. However, I would assess Langkow and Stajan in camp and if they look good to go I would look to trade Jokinen.

    There is demand for top 6 centre’s across the league and with Jokinen a UFA after the season I would look to move him. Langkow, Stajan, or Backlund are all better in a shutdown role and Jokinen hasn’t worked on the top line.

    The following line-up looks fine to me:

    Tanguay-Stajan-Iginla / Hagman-Langkow-Bourque / Glencross-Backlund-Moss / TK-Morrison-Jackman

    You still have Morrison as a safety net, and you keep a window open for the kids to take TK, Jackman’s, or Hagman’s spot.

    • My confidence comes from his results with the big boys last year, albeit mostly against the weak lambs of the league. That said, the appetite for a Backlund with Iginla experiment comes from the lack of an ideal option. Honestly, if he lands anywhere but the 4th line I’ll probably be satisfied.

      Backlund’s at the point now where Gio was a few years ago: he’s crushing the nobodies and needs to move up the rotation so we can really see what we have here.

  • Section205

    @SinCity

    I just don’t like Stajan on the top line. I mean, I’m sure I am just looking at last year and forgetting what he did before last year, but I don’t know, I feel more confident in people other than Stajan to centre the top line. I know he had rough percentages last year and the chances of him having a rebound year are good (I mean, how much worse can he get?). I just don’t know about him on the top line, I think Backlund compliments Iggy and Tangs better than Stajan.

  • Vintage Flame

    @Kevin R

    Stajan isn’t going anywhere if he remains parked on the fourth line. Not without us taking back someone elses headache. And if he rebounds why would we want to get rid of him?

    @schevvy

    Clearly the popular opinion is that Stajan won’t work on the top line and Backlund will. I understand the first, I am not confident Stajan will rebound enough either. But I don’t understand the confidence of the second.

    I think Morrison, Langkow, and Stajan are all more likely fits on the top line. I think we are all just dazzled that we actually have a rookie with top 6 potential and are over estimating Backlund. But I may be pleasently proven wrong.

    Regardless, I still don’t see a place for Jokinen but that is another story.

  • RKD

    I am highly skeptical Matt Stajan would be centering the #1 line. If Morrison is ready to start the season, he will probably be between Tangs and Iggy.

    If Morrison isn’t ready, then I’m sure it would be Backlund.

    Jokinen and Stajan are like kryptonite to the first line.

    • Vintage Flame

      I would imagine in training camp and pre-season, there will be a number of line combinations to see who fits up front. Expect to see all the centres taking a turn with the #1 line.

      Keep in mind Stajan looked quite impressive up there last year at the same time.. His decline was rapid though after his injury. I would think he at least gets a look once again.

      The same will be said for Backlund. He impressed to close out the season, so he will get a look as well. I don’t see Morrison being put on the top line. His numbers weren’t great there and he is still a question mark with his injury. I see Brendan as a flex type centre that they can move around and possibly place as a winger if he is needed there.

  • Derzie

    Kent, What the heck does this mean:
    “Well, the Flames first line isn’t really going to be a “true” top line in the sense of that term”

    Was I watching a different team and looking at different Top 10 individual stats lists than you? Not sure you should be posting about the Flames if you are that negative in your assessment of talent. Flame away, but words say it all.

    • I meant in the power vs. power sense. That is being matched up against other teams top lines consistently.

      That’s not a negative assessment. It’s a fact. It’s also true of, say, the Sedin twins in Vancouver, who gets some of cushiest ice time in the league amongst “top lines”.

      It’s really a question of categorization than anything else. I consider true first lines to be the guys who play the most against the other teams best players. However, I also sometimes use it in the more common sense – the line that scores the most. In that regard, Iginla/Tanguay are a true top line.

    • Vintage Flame

      Kent, What the heck does this mean: “Well, the Flames first line isn’t really going to be a “true” top line in the sense of that term”

      The Flames #1 line isn’t a true “Top Line” in that if the team plays them in a PvP situation, they tend to struggle against the opposition. Instead, they are the top scoring line, because they are deployed against typically weaker opposition to give them a more dominant chance.

      Why was Iginla having such a struggle last year to start the season. Mostly because the Flames were putting him out in that PvP matching, and it wasn’t paying dividends.

  • RexLibris

    @VF and KW
    I have a couple of questions about MB: what is the reasonable ceiling for Backlund’s career? I think a 2nd line centre is probably where he’s trending right now, but then I don’t see him that often. I’m curious what kind of comparables you would draw for him.

    Also, would Backlund be best served by being paired with responsible wingers who can help cheat a little defensively so the line doesn’t get exploited by some matchups? As I see it he needs confidence at this point for his offensive game to develop.

    • Vintage Flame

      That’s hard to say. Pretty early in his career and we don’t know where he will slot in. Obviously he is NOT a 4th line player, so his ceiling is much higher than that. But… Is he a 1st line centre? He is definitely talented and skilled enough.

      I think to play it safe, I would say he has a ceiling of a 2nd line centre and the possibility of a dominant 2 way player on the 2nd line.

      The problem is, what wingers do you want to pir him with for that scenario. When I read your question, the first player that came to mind was Langkow, but he’s not a winger so you would have to move MB to the wing.. Becomes complicated right?

      I still think he CAN get the confidence playing with Iggy and Tanguay. If Sutter keeps them away from the PvP situations, then he’ll be good and could possibility raise his own ceiling.

      In the end, I think it’s a little early to determine his ceiling.

  • Reidja

    I’ve got to agree with VF that it’s too early to determine Backs ceiling. Where he fits on the spectrum between first line playmaking center to depth two-way forward with some offensive ability is yet to be determined. I think the fact that we are (rightly) anointing undrafted, one time KHLer, Giordano as a future cornerstone, should remind us that you don’t know what you have until opportunity is presented. Determination is hard to measure with stats.

    I think the real wildcard for whoever land between Iggy and Tangs (and I too think it may be every center on the team at some point…. sans Joker), will be the play of Rene Bourque. If this guy can play up to expectation he will be a handful and will require teams to adjust in response. Best case scenario for Backlund is an opportunity to play with I/T and a career year for Rene. Is that too much to ask?

    Sincity, I can’t see us moving Joker unless there’s a great offer on the table. He was great value for his contract last year and possibly our most reliable center.

  • Craig

    My optimism comes from the april 9th game against the canucks. Backlund looked really good with Iggy and Tangs and had a chance to score more goals than the 1 he had. I think that trio will be awesome this year.