Andrew Walker’s take on the Mikael Backlund situaiton has made the rounds recently. As one of those "advanced stats guys" who habitually defends the beleaguered sophomore, I’m obliged to offer my two cents.
It’s a long road ahead, but the team is drafting better, giving youngsters more of a chance to play with the big club – and that’s something that resonates, especially with undrafted free agents. A challenge for this team, and with a number of teams in the NHL – is managing the 50-contract limit. When Darryl Sutter handed out useless extensions to already-failed projects in the past, it meant the ability to infuse new blood, or scour non-traditional venues for talent was almost nil.
Point is: if you’re going to be proactive from a prospect and player development angle, you have to be quicker off the draw to evaluate and make decisions on players.
I’d say the point here is the Flames have to be better at evaluating value and talent, not necessarily quicker.
Of course, this opening salvo has virtually nothing to do with Mikael Backlund. At 22 years old, he has already played more than 100 NHL games, has increased his ice time in step-wise fashion each season and usurped other veteran NHLers, including Brendan Morrison and Matt Stajan this season. There’s quite literally no meaningful comparison between failed projects like Kris Chucko, Matt Pelech and John Negrin to Backlund because they never even crossed the NHL replacement level threshold. Backlund passed that marker as a rookie.
In short, there’s a drastic difference between pruning deadwood and uprooting a healthy sapling.
When the evaluation period is expediated – it brings to the forefront the name MIKAEL BACKLUND
Any flames fan would admit – there hasn’t been a long list of prospects-turned NHL’ers to get excited about in a long, long time. And maybe that’s why there were such high expectations and pressure on Backlund – who like it or not, was heralded as a future STAR on this team. You always want to show a certain element of patience with youngsters, especially first-rounders, but not to a fault. The truth is – Mikael Backlund’s career rope is officially getting shorter. He’s not at the end of it yet, but at this rate, if he hasn’t progressed 365 days from now? It’s over.
The issue of expectations is a fair point and one Walker himself should heed – something we’ll get in a moment. For now, let’s discuss the idea that we’re anywhere near knowing with certainty how good Backlund is or isn’t.
This is the kid’s second season in the league. It should be noted that he missed a chunk of games at the start of the year with a broken hand and has only appeared in 39 contests so far; meaning what we’re actually talking about is less than half a full 82-game schedule. The contention that we can leap ahead and project the player going forward based (mostly) on a cold stretch during one half of his sophomore effort is putting the cart well befoer the horse.
Let’s consider a few comparables.
Kesler and Langkow
In the summer of 2006, The Philadelphia Flyers put in an offer sheet to the Canucks Ryan Kesler – a surprising move at the time considering the kid hadn’t done all that much in the NHL yet. The Canucks matched despite the fact Kesler scored just 10 and 23 points in 82 games in his rookie year. During his 22-23 year old season, Kesler appeared in 48 games, scoring just six goals and 16 points (a 27 point pace). His shooting percentage was a mere 6.5%.
The seeds of what Kesler would become were there though. Although he was just a sophomore, Kesler faced the toughest competition amongst Vancouver centers in 2006-07 and his offensive zone start ratio was just 38.7%. Sound familiar?
Damyond Langkow was picked 5th overall after tearing up the WHL back in 1995. He cracked the NHL as a teen in 1996-97 (because the Lightning were lousy), but he would struggle to put up worthwhile numbers. His 22-23 year old season was his third in the NHL and Tampa Bay decided to cut bait and moved him for (laugh) Chris Gratton and MIke Sillinger. Langkow was considered a throw-in in the deal. He finished the year with 14 goals and 33 points (which was actually a careere best for him). He jumped up to 50 points in Philly the very next year and didn’t fall below 50 again until injuries cut his season short in 2008-09 with Clagary.
Langkow didn’t crack the 20-goal barrier until 2001-02 with the Coyotes – his 6th year in the league. That 27-goal career high would start a run of seven consecutive 20+ goal campaigns.
None of this is to suggest Backlund will necessarily develop into a Selke winner or one of the most consistent two-way centers in the NHL. The problem is assuming lackluster output from a 22-23 NHL forward meaningfully indicates he is somehow stagnating or no longer a worthwhile asset is completely myopic. The Lightning would have been a better team had they kept Langkow. The Canucks would be immeasurably worse had they allowed Bobby Clarke to sign away Kesler. Cutting bait on a sophomore forward with good fundamentals because he’s shooting 5% is a good way to look foolish in the future.
Needs and Perceptions
Backlund, despite loads of ice time and opportunity, has 4 goals, 11 points and is a -14. Backlund is at a point in his career and skill-set where he NEEDS to contribute for his team to be successful. At the present time, the Flames are riding the quartet of Iginla – Cammalleri – Tanguay- Jokinen. There is no reason, ABSOLUTELY NONE, that Backlund shouldn’t be this team’s fifth best forward. Right now, the tag is bestowed upon Blair Jones. Backlund can’t let that happen, but he has.
I’ll be honest – I don’t understand any of this. The Calgary Flames are the second oldest team in the league behind the Detroit Red Wings. They have a payroll of over $63M. Backlund is the only forward on the club under the age of 25 and is just the 10th highest paid skater up front; the only regular players with lower cap hits are Tom Kostopolous, Blair Jones and Tom Kostoplous.
I’m also not sure why Blair Jones is considered the superior player here. Perhaps that comes from the coaching staff, but it’s a bizarre perception. Despite being almost three years older than Backlund, he has played less games, scored less points and mostly faced other bottom-sixers (until his recent two-game stint as a checking option under Sutter). His three points in 12 games with Calgary projects to 20 over 82 – marginally less than Backlund’s 23-point pace. None of that is meant to besmirch Jones, who I have liked as a functional, no-cost pick-up for the Flames. Hell, he may even turn into a useful checking center for the club given recent developments. But, again, there’s no meaningful comparison here. Backlund’s younger, has better pedigree and even with such a terrible SH%, is on pace to score more.
Also, recall what was said about expectations – it’s the arbitrary assumption that Backlund should be a consistent, top-6 option which frames Walker’s argument. Personally, that strikes me as rather ludicrous given Backlund’s age, pay scale and relatively limited experience. Outside of phenoms, most NHL forwards are just finding their legs at this point in their career. The idea that the Flames NEED Backlund to be a legitimate difference make NOW is a indictment of the construction of the roster, not of the player himself.
Walker goes on to buttress his argument with comparables from Backlund’s draft season which I’m not going to get into much. Suffice to say, some of the guys listed are top-10 picks (Voracek, Kane, Turris, Gagne, Alzner, JVR) and many whom he dubs "difference makers", aren’t (Blum, Turris, JVR).
Of course, none of that is really relevant to the Calgary Flames, since they don’t have any of those players. If we were to fashion a sort of asset hierarchy for the organization, Backlund is near the top, not the bottom – he’s the best forward prospect to be picked since Lombardi, if not Stillman. He’s cheap, he’s young, he’s improving and he’s the only guy up front in the 21-24 range who can play at the NHL level in the entire org.
There’s a reason to be concerned about his finishing ability at this point, but the fact that he’s already a regular NHLer playing non-cupcake circumstances as a sophomore is a huge arrow pointing in the right direction. That’s a step a guy like Dustin Boyd never took, for instance.
This isn’t to suggest Backlund can’t or shouldn’t get better – no one outside of Crosby or Ovechkin dosen’t need to improve at 22. I’d say he needs to work on his shot and offensive assertiveness in certain circumstances. But a savvy organization isn’t talking about dumping Backlund at this point. In fact, the Flames could leverage Backlund’s poor output to sign him cheaply this summer as an RFA and better position themselves to garner value from his contract for the next few years. Given the manner in which Backlund has improved and succeeded this year (scoring chances, possession, tough circumstances), his bad counting stats represent an opportunity for the team, not an indication he needs to be shuffled off.
Kids who are already functional players at 22 are guys you gamble with, not give up on.