There’s no Rush With Backlund



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.

I’m not going to revisit my past, math-centric defenses of Backlund. Instead I’ll look at how Walker has framed some of his arguments and where I see them lacking.

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.

  • PrairieStew

    The only thing I would say is that the one more year is a good point. Coming off his entry level deal, based on his production to date I would not be surprised to see the Flames offer a one year deal only at this point, and be willing to roll the dice somewhat before locking him up for a longer term.

  • jeremywilhelm

    So you offer a one year and he absolutely lights it up like crazy an all of a sudden his leverage even as an RFA is mich better. You sign him for 3 years with the belief that even if he doesnt progress he is already a pretty third liner.

    • Exactly. The best point in this article is that Backlund’s down year is going to the Flames the upper hand in leverage for contract negotiations. He’s going to continue to improve and the team is going to get him at a pretty decent contract this off-season.

      • xis10ce

        I couldn’t agree more. We are in a situation were our worst case scenario is selling off this asset for peanuts strictly because his offensive number ‘just aren’t there’. Take this opportunity to get him for a medium length deal for cheap. If he remains a defensive player who perpetually moves the puck north that fine, just don’t unload him for almost nothing because he’s the whipping boy due jour.

  • redricardo

    I have a lot of respect for Andrew Walker, and this was the first time I read his blog. And reading it made me really excited!

    Because if a smart, hockey guy like Walker can actually value a Turris more than Backlund, that means there are probably going to be other guys who do as well. Fact is, there is no matrix to show you how well a player is doing, or how fast a prospect is progressing. Walker makes good points he probably firmly believes.

    But Kent has delivered a well written argument with excellent counter points. Will that change Walker’s mind? Probably not. He’d probably trade Turris for Backlund straight up, considering Turris is a “difference maker”, and Backlund is a disappointment.

    And that’s the Flames best chance to start making up ground, and get back up a few levels without having to drop down a few levels and rebuild completely, a la the Mulletheads from up north. Continue to take advantage of the guys who would value a Turris over a Backlund, and build up that way. Use Weisbrod and the pro scouts to find more Backlund’s, and steal them off guys like Walker.

    And that prospect excites me. As long as my team is the one getting the Backlund’s, and not giving up on them!

  • Obviously I completely agree with KW. Backlund looks great to me considering his age and experience. I hope for once we can develop him to his full potential and maybe see some solid years of top 6 performance out of the kid.

    My question is this: I went over to Walker’s blog on 960 to read his original piece. Why are there no comments on his blog? There appears to be a submission form, and for something that has angered so many members of the blogosphere I would have expected at least a couple comments to pop up. Weird.

      • RexLibris

        Are you serious look at this dudes numbers he sucks in the face off and hes not strong enough or fast enough to be a top 6 forward. What he has 4 goals!?….thats what its going take.. to make the flames top 6 thats pretty pathetic we will be lucky to get a 3rd round pick for him…hes to busy tweeting about eating in dumb places than focusing on his job and training. I use to be like we cant resign jokien because backlund is going to take his place…i was fool to think that. The guy simply cant produce points and he does not deserve to play top 6 minutes.

        • xis10ce

          “this dudes” numbers make him the best defensive forward on the team.

          twitter, which generally takes roughly 5 seconds to use, does not impact his “training” time.

          faceoffs are 1/70th of a win.

          his luck has been horrendous, and yet despite that his scoring rate this year is a grand total of 4 points behind last years.

          • RexLibris

            So i guess ur pretty happy with his point total..and we didnt draft him because we wanted a defensive forward usually when you draft a player in the first round you want him to score you goals and rack up the points.. the late rounds are for defensive players. If the first round picks could do both thats great as well.focus on when he takes a shot it seems like the guy just wants to get a shot on net and doesnt really seem to put the effort in maybe going behind the net and making a play but instead he just shoots a weak shot at the goalie and hopes for the best. I know im talking alot of smack about him i watch every game and i pay very close attention to the players and i just dont see any upside in backlund thats opinion. I hope the guy could prove me wrong next year and get 20 goals.

          • Gange

            These are the weakest arguments I’ve ever heard. Did you even read the article or (the most likely option) are you just trolling.

            Your logic makes my head hurt.

            I’d love to see what Backlund does next year. With his improvement curve I think he’ll be a heck of a player next year.

            As for Walker and the media, sometimes you just need a story and Backlunds point totals make him an easy target.

            Patience. He’ll come along. There’ll be no Stanley Cup parade on 17th this year anyway.

          • Robert Cleave

            So, what are you going to say if Feaster gets your 3rd rounder for our 1st rounder we never gave a chance to & Backlund becomes a solid 2nd line/top 6 55 point scorer in 2 years? The 3rd rounder we get is still trying to prove themselves in the AHL or ECHL. You would probably call Feaster the worst GM on the planet & be the first one on the Feaster bash wagon. Regardless of the extent of the injury, it cost Backlund about 5 weeks at the start of season. To make judgements of this player to the extent of dumping him for a 3rd rounder is just out & out ludicrous. Did you read Kent’s article & the Kesler comparison? Can you not see the logic is patiently developing a 22 year old? Reality is if Backlund over achieved, it would probably have cost the Flames a huge overpayment on his next contract. If you are worried about your perception of where Backlund is at as per your expectation, I think what Wolf says has more merit & question how Flames & the Flames coach handle & utilize our “AAA” propsects.

          • xis10ce

            Tis true, as stated in the past by others (all #s from behind the net 10games+, 5v5) this year Backlund:

            -has the 2nd lowest PDO on the team at 943
            -has the 2nd lowest ZS% at 44.4
            -has a SH% of 2.0

            I mean this is nearly Blake Comeau luck at this point.

            Compared to last year at (same filters, 2010-11 data):

            -had the teams lower middle PDO of 986
            -had the upper middle ZS% of 54.3
            -had a SH% of 4.7

            This year he’s starting off way more often in the Dzone, getting hugely unlucky compared to last year and we are pooping on him for not blowing the lights out numbers wise? Simmer people.

            Most importantly we need to notice that last year compared to this year his Corsi Rel QoC went from -0.168 to 1.337 meaning he’s doing better at moving the puck in the right direction vs the comp. Justin couldn’t be more right if he tried.

            The PDO and SH% will correct themselves to match his improvement in Corsi Rel QoC and the numbers will come. Or at the very least he’s eating up minutes, buying rest for the top lines and not being a defensive liability on the ice, how can you go wrong?

      • RexLibris

        That is a day chock full of stupid.

        The thing to keep in mind when even considering trading away a player like Backlund is: who will take his place in the lineup and be either equal or better? I don’t the Flames lineup that well, but I can’t think of any immediately available prospects on the roster.

  • RexLibris

    So part of his argument is that teams now need to make judegments on developing players more quickly? Well, then, based on their record the Flames already have this one in the bag. Didn’t they rush to judgement on Brett Hull and Martin St. Louis?

    Patience pays off, and I would rather my GM take some extra time to make the right decision than feel he has to make a decision right now.

    I’ve already said that Backlund deserves some more time and I think it should also be noted that as a centre he needs some good wingers in order to post the numbers that critics demand. Unfortunately for Backlund his draft-mate Sam Gagner is finding a great deal of scoring success right now, but is it any wonder that he’s doing it playing on the first line with the Oilers’ two top players? If his linemates were Belanger and Hordichuk does anyone still think he’d be posting an 8-point night? (Although, if he did with those two that would be a night for the record books)

    As I see it, the Flames need to get to a point where they have the depth to put Backlund as the second-line centre and Jokinen on the third line.

    I’m surprised that Walker feels the Flames need to cut bait on this player already. But then I have noticed that impatience is a common element to many fan blog sites (the Nations largely being an exception).

  • RexLibris

    Firmly agree with Kent on this one and don’t get me started on Walker.

    But the Flames have yet to learn that taking an offensive player at one of the most critical stages of his development and placing him in checking role is terribly wrong.

    The kid has lost his confidence to score and the team needs to find soem way for him to get it back.

  • Robert Cleave

    So, instead of comparing Backlund to Langkow or Kesler, how about maybe a guy that just signed a four year deal the other day? Frans Nielsen seems to have settled in as a guy that will score 40-50 points a year while playing against the grownups. If Backlund tops out at that level, would that be the end of the world?

    My sense is that if he reaches that level, he’ll have covered the bet for a player of his draft position fairly handily. I don’t doubt that people want him to be more, but the club’s needs and a player’s legitimate future should never be conflated. That sort of projection does no one any favours.

    It’s also worth remembering that, as Kent noted, Langkow was a top five guy and Kesler was drafted 23rd in a draft that could end up being the best since the double-cohort selection that happened in 1979. No one would compare the 2007 draft to those two, so the expectations for a player taken 24th should be a bit restrained.

    Anyway, Backlund’s progress has been decent enough, and I think a two year bridge deal for his next contract would likely be fair for both sides.

  • MC Hockey

    Hi all…”interesting” comments and arguments so far…so I add one new point. A certain hockey fantasy expert mentions that top players usually start hitting their scoring peak in NHL year 4…Backlund is not there yet…just saying!

  • Graham

    You can buy time for Backlund to develop if you play him on the third line behind two top 6 calibre centers. (that could be two second line guys like Jokinen).

    Center is the key forward position, can you win with Jokinen, Jones, Backlund and Stajan?
    If Jones, Backlund and Stajan don’t or can’t score, or pass the puck your offensive output has to be severely limited.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for resigning Backlund, but with two quality guys ahead of him. The current balance is wrong, we need to deal from our strength of surplus wingers to acquire a decent center.

    • SmellOfVictory

      If he’s being developed on the 3rd line, he should be given easier playing circumstances. He’s currently being played very close to the role of a checking centre, and gets almost no PP time. That’s not how you help a guy reach his offensive potential.

  • Section205

    In terms of trading Backlund, I don’t see a value in it at all. His scoring totals are low, which is when teams try to screw you over. Also, his salary isn’t (and won’t be in the near future) at all restrictive. Using patience and taking a chance on Backlund is, well, not a risk at all. The need for a #1 C seems to overshadow the importance of solid, two-way Cs that can survive against top players – Backlund being one example.

    The Kesler/Langkow comparisons don’t carry much weight for me. First off, because this progression is seemingly far from the norm. Secondly, because the more we preach that Backlund could develop this way, the more I see multiple examples of the same types of players on competing teams. So I don’t necessarily see this as a strong support for his value to a team, but it is good news in terms of his development timeline.

    I admit I have been discouraged by Backlund as of late. He has strong games where he’s all over the puck, yet he struggles to even provide a threat to score in the eyes of the opposition. Luckily, his shot and confidence with the puck can be improved through more experience in the pro game. A more realistic comparable in my eyes would be a player like Valterri Filippula. From afar, it seems he’s been bred in much the same capacity, and at 28 is starting to contribute more offensively. Of course, it’s difficult to compare the development programs of Detroit vs Calgary, but examples like this are encouraging nonetheless.

    Well done, Kent. Much needed perspective on this issue.

  • Section205

    I have a lot more patience for Backlund than I do for Walker.

    What is he trying to say? That we only have 50 contracts, so we soon have to get rid of 22/23 year old Backlund so we can have extra room for a 3rd line AHL player?

    Let’s all agree that no one is required to respond or acknowledge any of Walker’s ramblings.

  • Emir

    Well its been a while since I’d posted and first off i’d like to say this. Kent, thank you for another well written article on this topic. I almost think we could combine the three or four you’ve done into an editorial and have you sell it for $$$ to hockey magazine.

    Secondly. Patience is a virtue, don’t just read basics stats (goals, points, plus-minus, etc) look deeper into the player. Stop looking for quick fixes for our team, that’s how this organization got itself into the mess its in right now.

    Third. Trade Backlund? Even Darryl Sutter who was willing to give Phaneuf for nothing wouldn’t give up Backlund then and he wasn’t as good as he is now. Think about it.

    Backlund is going to be a big part of this team going forward, and its hard to get good smart two way players. I’m not telling you that he is going to become the scoring leader, but I know he is destined for some great things and I hope we are smart enough to keep him in the Flaming C.

  • MC Hockey

    @ flames161

    A 3rd rounder for Backlund?? Have you stopped taking your meds?

    Oh and you owe me a beer…I spat most of mine out when I read your “opinion”!

    As you were.

  • MC Hockey

    Just wanted to get on again and say I agree with Kent about 99.9% on Backlund, patience and perspective is needed. Also wonder if live chat on for 7pm game tonight! Also want to remind all that you can click on a button at top right and go to JetsNation to check out the “alternate and better” news on the exciting and new-again Winnipeg Jets from top writers like Scott Taylor and other Nation guys!

  • Emir

    Well Kent answered my questions, I was kinda wondering about Kesler and his career path when reading the article on M&G. I thought that when Kesler was offered the Philly Contract he was really the player he is now.

    And thats where I am on Backlund, if we gave Backlund Sedin like ZS% and all I bet he could put up a bunch of nice fancy counting numbers. But the fact is Sutter is using him in pretty much the OPPOSITE role, and Backlund is doing a hell of job with it. To give up on Backlund now is exactly what the organization SHOULDN’T be doing. All the numbers point to a guy with a really unlucky year and given a better oppurtunity he could be a 60+ point guy.

    We have a PILE of guys we can give up on, MacMillan, Grantham, Leblond, Ivanans and Meyer to name the pile. Now put Backlunds name in that pile of guys to give up on and one of those suddenly is NOT like the others. Backlund IS an NHLer of that there is no doubt, even if he doesn’t ever put up points there is a role he can do BETTER than any other crappy prospect we have. And thats play against other teams top players and not suck at it and you need those guys.

  • Robert Cleave

    Walker was blasting his -14 again this morning. Fan 960 has become a joke. Stick to the idiotic “comedy” segments that now dominate 3/4 of the programming on that show.

    Never realized I’d miss Kerr so much. Don’t know what you have until it’s gone, I guess.

    Seriously, the only time you hear analysis anymore is if they have a guest on.

  • jesc23

    I’ll throw out another comparison…. Alex Steen? Haven’t research his early years’ stats but if Backlund develops into that kind of player, would Flames fans accept it?

    I, for one, think that Backlund will be the next Langkow for the Flames. He doesn’t have the flash to be the difference maker but contribute little things which are often missed during games.