The Good and Bad of Mikael backlund

I’ve done something like this already this season, but it’s time for another article praising Mikael Backlund.

It seems ridiculous on it’s face to sing the praises of a forward who has scored six points in 28 games this season. That’s about an 18-point pace over a full 82-game schedule, or approximately what Cory Sarich managed last year.

Bad Luck

Let’s tackle the lack of points first because no matter how useful a forward seems to be in other aspects of the game, he has to put up some offense in order to be anything more than a 4th liner in the NHL. Backlund’s point total is dreadful so far, but it’s almost entirely due to bad luck.

Misfortune is an unsatisfying, counter-intuitive explanation for just about anything, but there’s no way to get around the fact that Backs has been unlucky in 2011-12.

Consider: #11 has three goals on 68 shots on net. That’s a 4.3 SH%, less than half what you would expect a completely unremarkable forward to garner. Even Derek Smith (5.4) and Mark Giordano (7.3) have higher SH% this year. Backlund’s average shot distance at ES is 32.4 feet, which isn’t exactly close, but still not so outrageously outside that one would expect such a terrible goal rate.

In addition to Backund’s own struggles to bury pucks, his teammates have also been snakebitten this season. The Flames have an on-ice SH% of 4.57 with Backlund, just over half the league of average of around 8%. Unfortunately for Backs, the Flames goalies have also been sieves behind him at 5on5 as well with an on-ice SV% of 89.1% (league average is about 92).

Altogether, Backlund’s PDO (on-ice SV%+SH%) is 93.7. The league mean is 100 and most skaters percentages tend to regress towards that in the long run. To put that in context, a very unlucky season is usually in the 96-97 range. Only 15 forwards who played 40+ games last season ended up with a PDO below 96 last year.  

Mikael’s PDO is the 17th lowest in the league amongst forwards with 20+ games under their belt this season. The hockey gods have him at the wrong of the distribution tail. That’s just the way it goes sometimes.

The Good Stuff

There will likely be suggestions that Backlund is somehow driving his poor percentages despite the fact that a vast majority of percentage movement in the NHL is variance. Another counter-point is the scoring chance evidence we have for Backlund so far this year also suggests good play but bad luck. 

His scoring chance ratio is currently 52.7%. That means the Flames have outchanced the bad guys about 53% of the time with Backlund on the ice at ES this year. That’s one of the best chance percentages on the team.

In addition, Backlund has done the job in terms of driving possession. As noted by Rob Vollman in his recent Black Box article:

Backlund plays top-six minutes, just like Curtis Glencross, Olli Jokinen, Jarome Iginla, and Alex Tanguay. Despite playing in those tough situations the only player with whom the Flames have greater territorial advantage is Matt Stajan – and he plays exclusively against fourth lines, and usually in the offensive zone.

Backlund’s corsi rate – the differential of shots for and against with him on the ice – is +6.7/60 minutes of evn strength ice. Even more instructive is his relative corsi rate, which currently sits at a team best +15.0/60. That means the Flames shot differential is 15 more shots higher when Backlund is on the ice versus when he’s off of it this year.

That is especially notable because, as RV notes, Backlund isn’t playing against the lesser lights. For the first time in his young career, Backlund has started out more often in the defensive end and played top-six type opposition. Despite the uptick in difficulty, the puck has continued to travel in the right direction and spend more time in the offensive zone for Backlund. Those are big arrows pointing in the right direction going forward.

The Risks

The risks of this dry spell for Backlund (and the organization) is his losing a roster spot and/or getting dealt. Even though NHL coaches and GM’s are more cognizant of the ups-and-downs of an NHL season than most fans, they still tend to follow the percentages, especially when the team as a whole is struggling. As a result, a good player may be benched or moved because his outlandishly poor counting numbers suggest he isn’t not worth a damn. And, to be fair, it’s hard to perceive a guy any other way when the puck just doesn’t go in whenever he’s on the ice (and, alternatively, seems to go in way too often at the other end).

But the data we have shows the kid is doing everything else well. And what we know about percentages is that they inevitably regress over the long-term. For further evidence of this, note that Backlund’s PDO in his first 23 games in the league, for instance, was 102.4 (a team high that year). And he is objectively a much better player now than he was then.

The Flames situation plus the perception of Backlund’s struggles puts him in the "part of a package trade" territory unfortunately. And while no player is untradable on the Flames these days, chances are Feaster would be selling low on an asset who is going to rebound hard at some point in the future. He’s the best forward prospect to come out of the Sutter era of drafting and could be a key cog as this team starts to rebuild.

So patience is the watchword when it comes to Mikael Backlund right now. If he keeps moving the puck in the right direction, things will inevitably improve for him.

  • OilFan

    Wouldnt even think of trading him. Need to give him more time, especially with the crappy start or no start. I would put him ahead of Parjarvi & I dont see Oil too quick to trade PMS.

  • Mitch2

    It’s funny that you chose Backlund as a topic as I had a rather heated debate with a fan on Saturday about some of the young players on this team. He was of the opinion that Backlund is underperforming and should be on the block. I argued that due to current health concerns I would think it more likely to deal Baertschi. You’d have thought I told him I was a nazi by his response. There is no way Sven would be dealt as the team has too much invested in him.

    From my view, the team has invested way more into the development of Backlund. No doubt the hopes are high for Baertschi, but he hasn’t even been in the system for a year. If it was one or the other, at this point I would offer up Baertschi. I think a case can be made that expectations were too high for him this year, from everyone. As Kent pointed out, he’s playing just fine…he’s just not showing up on the scoresheet.

    For those that doubt Kent or myself…stop looking at your computer AFTER the game, and pay more attention to what’s happening on the ice. That can sometimes tell you a lot more about a player than what’s on the stat sheet afterwards.

  • RKD

    Hope he can get it going in the second half along with his current linemate Stempniak.

    I would hate for the Flames organization to give up on him too soon, they gave guys like Kobasew, Lombardi, etc. more time.

  • SmellOfVictory

    Yup. I get a little more anxious the longer Backlund goes on this dry spell (I was actually more excited for his assist than Bouma’s first NHL goal); especially because the Flames, even with the changes Feaster made when he came in, aren’t exactly known as a frontrunner in terms of advanced analytics in the NHL.

    The good news is that he’s still getting ice time, and it looks like it’s actually increasing as the season goes on. For all his faults, I think Sutter might recognize (to a decent degree, anyway) that Backlund is primarily snakebitten more than anything.

  • Mitch2

    There is a saying “It is better to be lucky than good”

    I am going to admit that I am one who had high expectations of Backlund and am not impressed this season.

    On one hand I understand the positive breakdown and its logic. But Backlund looks invisible to me. Invisible can be good as well. I don’t see him making mistakes and I was overall quite pleased with his rookie season because of it.

    I see him as a very smart player and positionally excellent but I don’t see enough drive in him. I see him playing hockey like chess.

    This will certainly result in a variety of pleasing numbers. Corsi etc but it isn’t what will result in him being a game changer of a player. Now perhaps that isn’t an issue.

    But certainly I can not be the only one who hoped Backlund would evolve into a 1st line C. I don’t like this acceptance of him already as a 2nd line C and that being all fine and dandy.

    Bad luck may be the way to sum it up. You can sit down with a guy like that at a blackjack table. A cooler…

  • Mitch2

    But he should get at least another season, no trade advocation by me but the whole point of a forward is to score. Lets not lose sight of that basic premise.

    Another year like the current one in production, no matter how glowing the other underlying numbers are you have to start to wonder. We just say Iggy put in his 500th off of two opposition players skates.

    He has had a few of those and that is luck, it matters.

  • everton fc

    He certainly needs to be given a shot. Given time. Agreed.

    I am one who sees Backlund as a capable, two-way third line centre in this league. Never a superstar, and I don’t see him as a #2 centre. That said, he is indeed a good, honest player, who may be good for the dressing room as he matures. I think he puts in a seriously honest effort.

    If he pans out as a 2nd line centre, super. If not… I wouldn’t be surprised. But I like Backlund. As a player, as a person. He’s a guy I’d like to see them keep, but if they could get more for him now than he’s worth… I say “consider it”.

    My hope is he’s with this team in a productive capacity, for some time.

  • ChinookArchYYC

    Things must be dismal if we’re talking about trading one of the few Flames that has been developed within the organization. I haven’t been worried about Backlund this year and complete expect better results in the 2nd half of this season. At the end of the day, I’ll only be worried if I see that management starts to show signs that they have lost patience, because I don’t think he should be moved.

  • Mitch2

    But if we expand out on Backlund and include last year, heck we include all of his NHL games.

    We are looking at a sample size of 125 games at the moment and 14 goals scored. That works out on a 82 game season to 9 goals a season.

    On Points per game using all 125 NHL games he has played he has a total of 41 points. Calculated out to 27 points on a 82 game season. There is snake bitten and there is a moment when you realize you have a forward who is not a scorer.

    I’ll cut a 22 year old player a lot of slack, especially given his other underlying numbers and based on the argument you make. I see it with the naked eye in his positioning and lack of mistakes as well.

    I just watched the 72 Summit Series again last night and it reminded me again how much the game has changed. The skilled Soviets vs the Gritty Canadians, the number of goals Canada put in from sheer will, grit and drive to the net while almost every single Soviet goal was a clean passing play.

    Sometimes you make your luck, if you know what I mean, you take risks because it is part of hockey. I have never heard of a one-way forward in the defensive sense in the top 6.

    Anyway, Backlund is very young at 22. He has at the very least another full season from me and I am not going to lower my hope that he evolves into a 1st line C yet.

  • ChinookArchYYC

    This article once again highlights the need to let guys with offensive potential develop that offensive potential in, of all places, a development league. But that time has passed.

    It does amaze me to see that he’s getting top 6 mintues, something I totally support, it just doesn’t seem like that when I watch the games.

    I wonder if it’s not so much luck as it is confidence then? Backlund knows he can skate and play a 200′ game, but whenever he gets the puck on his stick is he doubting himself? Someone mentioned Iggy’s pinball 500th goal. Regardless of how long Iggy has ever gone without scoring, he still believes that eventualyl they’ll go in. Backlund needs to start believing in his ability to beat NHL goalies.

    Also, trading Backlund, Baertschi, Horak, Brodie or any of the young guys would be the stupidest thing the team could do. These are the guys the team has to build around.

    • ChinookArchYYC

      “Also, trading Backlund, Baertschi, Horak, Brodie or any of the young guys would be the stupidest thing the team could do. These are the guys the team has to build around.”

      I completely agree. Wait, stop I’m agreeing with The-Wolf? Oh well. I guess there is a first time for everything.

  • ville de champignons

    Backlund is going to be a Flame for a long time unless he becomes one of the secondary players in a larger trade.

    Oh, man, a horse? Sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug. But when its a horse? That just ruins everybody’s day.

  • RexLibris

    I got halfway through reading the article, Kent, and a name popped into my head. By the time I finished reading, I was just nodding my head. Jochen Hecht. Maybe he’s changed since he was with the Oilers but when he was here, and from what I recall it continued after he left, he was getting chance after chance, shooting a tonne from good scoring positions, but it seemed like nothing would ever go in for him. Lots of effort, and some good setup plays, even some decent hockey sense, but when it came to scoring…nada. Those guys can often find themselves useful roles later on as PK specialists and possession players who shut down an offensive matchup. That may not be Backlund’s future, and at 22 years old he still has a lot of highway ahead of him, but seeing as he is playing with some decent linemates, the next two years could go a long way to defining how he is perceived by other GMs.

    Anyone looking to move Backlund should take a look at the Gagner debate that rages here in Edmonton. He was rushed, true, but he’s the same age as Backlund, has the second most points for his draft class behind Patrick Kane, and yet because he hasn’t materialized into some kind of Patrick Sharp-esque centre, half the fans here are desperate to move him. The other half want to be patient (I’m in this camp), but it can be enlightening to see a similar debate over rather comparable players happen in another city.

    Backlund strikes me as the #2 centre in Calgary for the next few years. Mostly because it looks like the Flames are going to be weak down the middle for offensively-inclined forwards for the next little while. In time I think he will graduate to a competent, even at time dominant, 3rd line centre on a team with better options in the top six. That may not be on the Flames, but time will tell.

  • otto

    Backlund never has been nor will be an offensive threat.If he didn’t score in the minors what makes people think hes going to start now?He is a 3rd line guy who can play top 6 in a pinch and that’s fine.

    • Graham

      His numbers weren’t great in the AHL, but were solid for his age. What he really needed was another full season down there.

      Why this team refuses to let its young offensive prospects develop on the farm vs the 3rd and 4th lines in the NHL is beyond me at times. All I can think of is that it’s a viscous cycle, the team so desperate for a home grown prospect to pan out offensivley that any prospect that shows the slightest potential is rushed in and ruined, thus perpetuating the cycle.

      I’ll say it again, please send Horak to the AHL for the rest of the season.

  • in 125 games in the NHL, he has 255 shots on net, with a shooting percentage of 5.5%. He has 27 assists.

    I dont see offensive contributor written all over him. If he turns into a solid defensive player, which I am not convinced he has, thats ok, but you probably hope for more from first rounders, even late ones.

    • Subversive

      Do you? I would say any player drafted and developed in-house who turns into a solid NHL player is a win. Based on what Kent is showing, it seems the upside is there for him to provide at least mid level offensive production too.

  • Graham

    Backlund is just another example of the inability of the Flames to properly develop young players.
    Interchange Backlund’s name with Stillman and on and on…