If there’s one Flames player waiting eagerly for the CBA talks to culminate and get back onto the ice, it’s Mikael Backlund. There may be nobody else on the roster – not Roman Cervenka, not Sven Baertschi, not anybody else – with as much to prove as Backlund.
Calgary’s first round selection (24th overall) in the 2007 Entry Draft, Backlund made the jump from Sweden to North America to play with the Kelowna Rockets, stopping in for a single game of NHL action along the way. When he turned pro with the Abbotsford Heat in the fall of 2010, his scoring touch wasn’t lost and while his 32 points in 54 games wasn’t going to break records, it helped turn some heads.
But Backlund’s offensive production has led to a bit of head-scratching regarding the 23-year-old pivot. While he hasn’t lit the lamp too much at the NHL level (he’s scored 15 goals in 138 NHL games), he has quietly developed into one of the few Flames that doesn’t drown against high-level opposition. If you can develop a first round pick into an everyday NHLer that’s the best on your team at anything, you’re probably happy with that result.
That said, if five years post-draft, your first round pick misses half the season due to injury and, despite being one of your best two-way players is a minus-13 on the (half)-year, it’s probably not an ideal situation, either.
Now that he’s 100% healthy and the team seemingly knows what he can do, the onus is on Backlund to have a strong season.
EXPECTATIONS AND COMPARABLES
Let’s get the hard part out of the way first. Backlund has played in the NHL for parts of three seasons. In 2009-10, he had 0.43 points per game. In 2010-11, that scoring rate dropped to 0.34 points per game. In 2011-12, that figure fell further to 0.27 points per game.
That said, a lot of the drop-off can be blamed on Backlund’s injuries last season, the fact that he was playing against some stiff competition on the other side, and that his shooting percentages were atrocious. Career-wise, Backlund has scored on 5.4 percent of his shots. Compare that to Alex Tanguay (a career 18.6 percent), Lee Stempniak (11.3 percent) and Olli Jokinen (9.8 percent). It can be reasonably surmised that Backlund’s percentages will go up. The question is “how far?”
In terms of offensive production, some comparable players can be found within the bottom-six of many teams. Andrew Cogliano put up 35 points at a similar point in his career. Patrick Berglund put up 38 points. Gilbert Brule had a pro-rated 18 point season. Kyle Chipchuara had 12 points. Trevor Lewis had a measly 7 points, but was a very effective two-way presence. Lauri Korpikoski had 11 points.
As you can see, there’s a good deal of variation, and a lot of it depends on who each player’s linemates were and who they played against. While it can be reasonably assured that Backlund will probably continue to play against top-six competition, who his linemates will be remains a mystery.
Mikael Backlund is in an interesting position. He’s not an amazing face-off guy, but he wins face-offs at the same clip as the Flames other centres, and usually against tough competition. The club will also have Blair Jones and Matt Stajan up the middle, as well as some combination of Mike Cammalleri and Roman Cervenka.
Of the three natural centres on the roster, Backlund is arguably the best all around player.
In terms of ice-time, Backlund will likely be battling with the likes of Cervenka, Cammalleri, Iginla, Hudler, Tanguay, Glencross and Baertschi for top-six time. He’ll also be a fixture on the penalty-kill, a role at which he was rather good last season. As far as linemates go, Backlund will probably be thrown in with some combination of the top six bunch and Blake Comeau and Lee Stempniak. These ten guys, along with Matt Stajan, probably comprise the club’s top nine.
Will he get a lot of offensive zone time? It’s possible, but the team has other players it probably wants to give the high ground to. Will he get a lot of power-play time? Again, possibly, but the question is how often – unless he somehow lands on a line with Iginla and Tanguay, Cervenka and Cammalleri will likely rate ahead of him on that front.
After three seasons in the Flames organization, the time has come for Mikael Backlund to take his great step forward. Or not.
Now 23 years old and an NHL regular, the open question is what kind of player Backlund has grown to be. A big criticism of prospect Greg Nemisz is that he doesn’t know what kind of game he’s trying to play, as opposed to Lance Bouma, who seems to know in his bones what to do and who to hit on the ice. It takes longer with some guys than it does with others, but Backlund showed flashes of become a very effective two-way player last season.
The keys to success for Backlund are staying healthy and actually converting on some scoring chances. He’ll definitely be on the penalty-kill and playing against the other team’s better players, simply because he’s one of the few Flames forwards who has success in that role. But who he plays with at five-on-five likely depends on how Bob Hartley sees Backlund fitting in: top-six scorer, third line checker or fourth line replacement player. If he’s given decent line-mates and develops an offensive opportunism into his game, Backlund could become a very effective primary forward for the Flames.
If his percentages don’t rebound and he fails to add at least some scoring, the kid might fall out of favor in Calgary for good. Meaning, if he’s thrown into the bottom-six scrap heap, it’s unclear if he’ll be able to regain any of the momentum that he lost last season.