If Mikael Backlund is available, the Leafs should pursue him

Reminder, Jonas Gustavsson will make $3M over the next two seasons in Detroit.

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Some interesting possibilities. Sometimes teams get handicapped with a lot of clutter toward the back of their roster, and some good players get forced out. Yesterday, the Calgary Flames signed Akim Aliu and Paul Byron, who are, by my count, the 45th and 46th out of a possible 50 contracts for the Flames. Aliu’s deal also makes him the 13th forward with an NHL contract for the Flames.

Remaining unsigned is former first-round pick Mikael Backlund, a centreman with 15 goals in his 138-game NHL career. He had 11 points in 41 games last year. I think he would be an exceptional candidate for the Toronto Maple Leafs’ first line.

From Kent Wilson’s FlamesNation.ca piece (linked above) discussing the two signings yesterday:

That leaves just a couple of notable RFA’s hanging: Mikael Backlund and Leland Irving. Backlund is obviously the most interesting Flame still without a contract. His poor season last year in terms of health and counting numbers may be contributing to a hesistance on the team’s part to commit more dollars and time to the player. He’s a 23-year, skilled forward with an undetermined ceiling in line for a rebound, but he’s also been rumored as trade bait. The longer this drags on, the less likely it seems he’ll be sticking around the Flames organization.

Kent is less than optimistic that the Flames will end up with Backlund. And why would the Flames want him? After all, he’s been less than effective offensively, with forwards drafted around his level in the 2007 draft, David Perron and Max Pacioretty, strong offensive contributors in the NHL.

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Here’s the thing though: the Leafs need a first line centreman in between Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul. Kessel and Lupul aren’t exactly the most stellar defensive players. Backlund can do two things: play centre, and play defence. The rest doesn’t matter too much:

  Corsi Rel Corsi Rel QoC Ozone%
2012 11.7 (1st) 1.249 (4th) 44.6% (2nd)
2011 15.2 (2nd) -.168 (11th) 54.3% (11th)

[Behind The Net]

With tougher minutes in the 2012 campaign, Backlund’s scoring dropped from .34 points per game to .27, but possession was still pretty good.

I see Backlund as a guy who can play extremely well in the defensive zone. He’s not a good faceoff guy yet, having gone below 50% in each of the last two seasons, but that hasn’t done too much to effect possession numbers. Kessel and Lupul are two guys who like to get it done off the rush. They aren’t exactly possession players who need to start with the puck in their zone. Backlund is a guy who can play closer to the Leafs’ net, get the puck forward to Kessel who carries it through the neutral zone.

Backlund makes players better. Lupul and Kessel are pretty poor possession players. Check out how Backlund’s top two linemates over the last two seasons, Jarome Iginla and Alex Tanguay, fared with and without Backlund:

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  CF/20 CA/20 Poss. Rate
Iginla w Backlund 19.3 17.4 52.6%
Iginla w/o Backlund 16.6 18.6 47.2%
Tanguay w Backlund 19.2 15.9 54.7%
Tanguay w/o Backlund 16.6 18.7 47.0%

[Hockey Analysis]

CF/20 and CA/20 refer to ‘Corsi Events For’ and ‘Corsi Events Against’ per 20 minutes of play. A Corsi event is any goal, saved shot, blocked shot or missed shot at even strength. The possession rate is calculated simply: CF / CF + CA. Both Iginla and Tanguay were better defensively and offensively with Backlund in the lineup. Some of that is, I’m sure, due to the easier minutes in the 2011 campaign, but in 2012, Backlund made Lee Stempniak, already a good possession player without Backlund at 52%, a 56% player. Iginla went from 45% to 49% with Backlund in the middle.

Whatever the reason, players are better off next to Backlund. Question 2, is he available? Two tweets:

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Followed by this from this morning:

Do the Flames understand how valuable Backlund is to the team? Maybe, maybe not. If the contract negotiations turn sour at any point, who knows how much patience the Flames will exhibit, given how much they already have committed to forwards. This is just one of those times where a piece or two should be used to swoop up a very good NHL player while he’s young. If there is still no news in a week, it is potentially good news for those who like the prospect.