Mikael Backlund is Good – I freaking told you so



pic via Stephanie Vail

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It isn’t terribly noble to wag your finger and say "I told you so", but I think this is an article that needs to be written. I spent all of last season doing my damnedest to defend Mikael Backlund from a growing chorus of naysayers in the Flames media and fanbase. The team was going through another disappointing season and Backlund wasn’t really contributing, at least in the most obvious ways. The 23 year old was hurt all the time and whenever he was in the line-up, the puck wasn’t going in the net for him. People in this city are highly conditioned to expect draft picks to bust, so it seemed like another failure in a long line of wasted prospects.

The counting numbers were deceiving however. Backlund’s ice time and responsibilities increased and his possession numbers remained sterling. Those are all the signs one needs to bet on a kid with a cheap contract – there’s almost no downside to keeping him, but a potential for huge upside if the percentages turn around (which they almost always do).

I haven’t taken a scientific poll or anything, but it’s clear the perceptions of Backs have mostly changed for the better this year. I know that mostly because I haven’t had to write a "Don’t Quit on Backlund" advocacy piece so far.

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Backlund once again leads the team in possession (even though his zone starts have sunk to about 45%) and his PDO remains pretty low (97), but his personal SH% has bounced up to 10.1%. With that and a bit more ice time at ES and on the PP, he has 14 points in 26 games so far, a 44-point pace over a full season. In addition, his two-way game appears by eye to be even better this year, a step forward which isn’t unexpected for a guy his age.

I don’t ever expect Backlund to be a high-end point getter – the 40-some point pace he has this year is probably a good expectation going forward. Still, with that modest but decent point level it’s become far more obvious that Backlund is a very useful asset and one the team should retain going forward.

Thank goodness Feaster didn’t move him in the summer.

Other Thoughts

– It’s amazing to read the comments below Jonathan Willis’ recent piece on Mike Brown over at Cult of Hockey. Jonathan counts chances for the Oilers and he details how large of a liability Brown has been since he arrived – and is absolutely pilloried for it by most of the readers.

It’s still stunning the degree to which many hockey fans in general (as well as some analysts) believe "toughness" affects outcomes in the NHL. I’m okay with admitting there is a toughness aspect to the game, because it requires strength and a non-trivial ability to both absorb and dish pain to persist.

But the superstitious notion that a player can be terrible – can be comepletely outshot, outchanced and outscored by the opposition – and be not only a positive contributor, but a necessary member of the roster, is both fascinating and baffling to me. Even when confronted by consistent, incontrovertible evidence that players like Mike Brown are usually gross liabilities when it comes to the core aspects of the game (that is, scoring and preventing goals), the defenders of facepunchers nevertheless cling to vague notions and semi-plausible narratives about winning and roster building in the league. 

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Since acquiring Brown on March 5th, the Oilers have gone 8-9-3 (or a winning percentage of 40%) and their corsi ratio has been about 43% over that period (which is bottom of the league terrible). As JW shows, Brown has been grossly outplayed in aggregate despite mostly skating against other depth players. Furthermore, If you take a glance at both their underlying and counting numbers, it’s clear the Oilers’ problem is a bottom six (and blueline) filled with players who aren’t really NHL caliber given the divide between their younger stars and everyone else.

And yet, you still have comment sections screaming that Edmonton need to get tougher and that the club’s woes stem from them being a bunch of sissies.

– Let’s pull back a bit on this idea of toughness and why it seems to be an undying article of faith for some. As I mentioned, there is an inescapable element of toughness in hockey. And, in principle, being significantly tougher as a player and as a team than the opposition could lead to positive outcomes – if it’s easy to take the puck off the bad guys or if they’re scared to battle for it in the corners, then it should be easier to defeat them.

Of course, like all things in a league that features the top 0.1% of players in the world, the difference between tough guys and non-tough guys in the NHL is vanishingly small as compared to the difference between the toughest and most fragile players in any given beer league. That’s mostly because almost all of the dudes who can’t take a hit or are afraid to go into the corners are all flushed out of the league pretty much immediately (if they ever make it that far). Hockey is a tough sport all the way down the line and if you’re a guy who can’t hang around the grinders or the enforcers out of frailty or fear, then you probably don’t make a lot of scouts lists.

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This theoretical effect of toughness (as well as the fact that tough guys are always fan favorites because of their role***) tends to create this odd inability for many folks to coolly and rationally analyze the contributions of replacement level grinders to winning. It’s one thing if a tough guy helps a team control the play, increase possession and move the puck in the right direction. But if he doesn’t do those things – in fact, is terrible at them – then you have to somehow assume there are other, more diffuse benefits that somehow outweigh the very obvious, very direct negatives he engenders  in order to continue to believe these sorts of players are worthwhile (nay, needed! to win).

The idea that one need not evaluate players like Brown – as long as they running around trying to hurt other players – is so absurd on it’s face if given more than 5 seconds of thought it’s frankly amazing the argument is still forwarded and defended – voraciously – in some quarters. It’s one that isn’t really propounded for any other factor or role in hockey either. Nobody defends blindingly fast skaters who can’t do anything else, for instance.

– ***Just to expand on this aside – it’s notable that people in general have a hard time distinguishing "I like" from "is useful". By which I mean the things you find notable, pleasant, courageous (add superlative here) may not, in fact, have true utility in the context of the game. It’s far easier for the mind to determine what it likes since subjective appreciation tends to be a lot more visceral and reactive (as well as easy to recall), and then make up stories about why this thing is important in the aftermath.

– Related: the people who think you can reduce hockey to a simple matter of "might is right" on the ice are usually the same sorts of people who claim that hockey is far too fluid and complex to adequately capture in stats. So either the game is irreducibly complex…or you can favorably improve a club by simply adding a few tough guys. It really can’t be both.

– On that note, Tim Jackman is a guy who should be held up as one of the few marginal fourth line players who can bang bodies, drop the gloves, but still contribute as a hockey player. He’s not going to win many shoot outs or go end-to-end any time soon, but he has always put up decent enough possession numbers (this year too) that suggest he’s not going to cost the Flames goals and wins, which is what should be asked of guys at the end of the roster.

He apparently had a great game on Satruday and I’m glad he’s a Flame. You can do a lot worse when it comes to facepunchers in this league.

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  • Kudos, K-Wil.

    Backlund is great, and my biggest fear is that he’s traded or not re-signed or something. I’m very, very afraid on this front.

    And yeah, I’ve always believed Wolverine Jackman was more than just a petty thug

  • Fantastic as always.

    Like Monsieur Loob, I have a deep fear that the Flames are going to screw up this summer with Backlund.

    There is a real chance to sign him to a value laden contract ala GlenX and its an chance the Flames can’t afford to miss.

    How the whole Backlund business plays out will go a long way in determining my faith in those who run the good ship Flames.

    PS. Tim Jackman is awesome

  • Parallex

    I always believed in Mickis. It was never based on Corsi or Fenwick (although it was nice to see those metrics validating his presense) but for a long strech whenever I would watch a game I’d look at a portion of the ice and say “someone needs to go there” and within seconds Mickis would appear. He just knows what to do out there

    IMO he hasn’t peaked yet hopefully now that his counting numbers are catching up to his performance he’ll get the icetime and special team play to reach his peak.

    On Brown (and “toughness”). I’m starting to see the same affliction starting to take root in the Flames fanbase (at least online and I gather that it’s probably something that’s happening in the fanbase at large). The desire for more “toughness”… not a stated qualified desire (tough player who is also a good player) just tougher and meaner in general as if that were the principle aspect that should be gathered rather then an auxillery one.

    • Yeah I’ve started to see that crop up here and there too. As you imply, toughness isn’t something to avoid and can be a useful addition to a roster, but not to the exclusion of actual hockey ability. If a guy can turn his size, strength into an asset (like, say David Backes) then giddy up.

      If you’re getting bigger without reference to a players actual ability to affect play, then you’re going the wrong direction.

  • Robert Cleave

    Good stuff as always, Kent.

    There were, as we all know, a couple of particularly vocal media members that spent last year calling Backlund a bust. As I mentioned to you earlier this winter, I hope that MB has a bit of a smirk on face whenever he passes them by. He’s earned that much. I’m still sticking with the idea that his marker is Frans Nielsen until I see evidence beyond that, and that’s perfectly OK.

    As for Jackman, he’s never really been a traditional enforcer, but more of a cruiser weight that happens to be a functional 4th liner. His underlying numbers in Calgary basically show a player that can break even with ZS% right around 50, which is acceptable for your 12th forward.

    The one number that did catch my eye as being a bit odd, in a good way, was his penalty differential. He either draws as many as he takes, or like this year, draws a few more.

    This is almost certainly due to the fact that he’s a competent player at his level, and very few of the thumper types can make that claim. Mike Brown, by comparison, isn’t doing quite so well by that metric this year, and you’ll note the guy he replaced was doing even worse.

    I’m not a fan of staged square dancing, but as long as teams feel like they need that element, might as well have a proper hockey player like Jackman in that role. He’s certainly preferable to McGrattan, at any rate.

    • Stockley

      McGrattan sounds like a great guy and a good teammate. Sadly those are useful qualities to have as a hockey player but not at the expense of being a liability on the ice; which he often is.

  • Yes completely agree on both counts! Both Backlund and Jackman are part of the long-term solution for the Flames. Backlund will only get better once he gets wingers who can also drive the puck forward. Meanwhile, Jackman is incredible value at 550k per annum I believe.

    If either is traded you better make sure you bodies back with much better upside potential. And that is hard in today’s salary-cap world.

  • Craig

    Seems like Backlund’s confidence is transfering into a bit of a leadership role with the young guys too. You see him out on the icing leading the charge and making his linemates better. I really hope that Mickis is a piece we build around. Love to watch him play.

  • Danger

    Good read, and you did freaking tell us so, many times.

    As far as McGrattan v. Jackman, just to play devil’s advocate (or dancing bear’s advocate, as the case may be), technically McGrattan has twice as many goals this year as Jackman does. Just sayin’.

  • SmellOfVictory

    I don’t see why he couldn’t average 50ish pts/season. He gets very little PP time, even now, compared to the other forwards on the team; if he were given real PP time, there could be a boost in there.

    Anyway, now that it’s been officially acknowledged via article, I’d like to reiterate: Backlund is amazing, haters walk.

  • Derzie

    I’m on the ‘doubt Backlund’ team. My concerns are over his potential fragility. He has rebounded from an easily applied (looked like a harmless collision)knee injury and has done very well. He has shown his stuff when healthy this year. Great to be wrong so far. Keep it up!

  • loudogYYC

    I’m glad public opinion seems to be turning the corner on Backlund. I’ve liked this kid since he was drafted and he’s slowly but surely proving himself.

    Question, where did Mickis come from? Swedish nickname?

  • seve927

    Was there ever any Backlund bashing on this site? I remember questions about whether he’d ever be a top-line guy or whether he could play a full season, but I thought he’d always been acknowledged for what he brought.

    Of all the things Feaster has said, the one that bothered me most was his “Whistling past the graveyard comment” regarding Backlund. He better be working on a multi-year deal with him right now.

    • SmellOfVictory

      Not so much bashing, but still a lack of appreciation for him as a player. I read a lot of comments where people stated that they thought he had a third line ceiling and was just a defensive specialist. Whenever possible Flames trades were brought up, there were invariably a couple of people who would include him, often as a “change of scenery” borderline throw-in, which drove me nuts.

  • acg5151

    Mike Brown is better than he’s being made out to be – he’s getting stuck with players like Lennart Petrell. As far as enforcers go, he’s pretty much the best in the league right now.

    A lot of the time team toughness doesn’t show up in the score, but sometimes it can. If you have a couple of checking lines they can wear out the opposition, and make players think twice about jumping into the middle or getting up in front of the net. There are plenty of times when fourth line grinder kind of guys can keep second and third liners from getting up in the goalie’s grill – not always, but sometimes. I realize that it doesn’t always show up on the score sheet and that they may get killed as far as corsi goes, but when it comes down to it, a guy like Mike Brown frees up other players from having to fight a lot of the time. I know on the Canucks, players like Alex Burrows, Ryan Kesler, Max Lapierre almost never have to drop the gloves just because we have Kevin Bieksa or Aaron Volpatti or Dale Weise or Zack Kassian to do it. Guys who aren’t really that great but can take opposing players off the ice for 5 minutes and can get the crowd into it. When an arena gets really into it, you can notice a lot of the time that the team will be playing harder as their arena gets louder. Again, doesn’t always show on the stat sheet, but there are times when a big win in a fight can help get the team into it.

    These aren’t really things that you can put in stats. I realize that hockey is going towards these puck possession stats, and they are really useful, but they don’t always really work for everything.

    As far as Mike Brown goes, the Oilers aren’t really going to be able to do a whole lot better right now. Moving forward, he’s probably one of the only guys I can see possibly being there in the future. He’s a huge improvement on Darcy Hordichuk, Ben Eager, and is a lot better than Lennart Petrell. Seriously, if I was an Oilers fan, I would be kind of mad that that team is actually stuck with that many useless players. It’s one thing to have one guy like Mike Brown, but seriously, they have like 4 of them. A good team should definitely have no more than one guy like that. Part of the reason why the Oilers are terrible – two line team!

    • These aren’t really things that you can put in stats. I realize that hockey is going towards these puck possession stats, and they are really useful, but they don’t always really work for everything.

      Okay. my question is, therefore:

      How do you know these things you detail above are actually useful? If their effect doesn’t show up in stats (ie; results) then you are just left with guesses and assumptions about their value.

      I’ve looked at replacement level grinders and fighters from various angles beyond possession, including wins, goals for, goals against, etc…they never seem to have a meaningful effect on the results that matter.

      My point isn’t that teams shouldn’t target or value toughness – it’s that they shouldn’t value it to the exclusion of other, pertinent hockey skills.

      • Stockley

        Have to agree with Kent. While there is some proof that having these ‘tough’ players on your team can discourage the other team from acting stupid it doesn’t always mean you’re going to win more. The Wings rarely employ dedicated enforcers, the majority of their skaters are more skill and finesse based. The last bonafide dancing bear I remember them having was Joey Kocur and he’s been retired forever; since in my opinion McCarty and Maltby were more Tim Jackman types, they could actually play the game a little. You can’t argue against the Wings success over the years. Only when faced with losing one of the best D-men to ever play the game are they in danger of missing the playoffs.

      • acg5151

        The only way you can tell is that you have to watch the games. You can definitely tell when a fight has made a difference. Aaron Volpatti on the Canucks was able to do what I described plenty of times.

        Not to mention that most of the time, it’s hard to get a really good possession style fourth line going on a solid team just because of salary cap restrictions.

        And yeah, players that are as bad as Darcy Hordichuk are not worth having at all. Mike Brown is a lot better than Darcy Hordichuk and throughout his career has been buried on fourth lines with worthless players like Frazer McLaren and Colton Orr and Lennart Petrell. Definitely a lot better than those guys. I’d rather have him on the Canucks to be honest than Tom Sestito, that’s for sure.

      • Try asking some players why these guys are so important Kent. I know you are very statistically driven and for the most part that is good but there are some things you can’t measure. Talk to some people who play the game.

        • I’ve heard the stories and interviews clyde. I’ve also played the game. Do those anecdotes contravene obvious, persistent evidence?


          And, further, if you can’t measure its effectiveness at all why are you so certain it’s there? If the effect doesn’t show up in wins, losses, goals against or for, etc then what are we talking about here? Having a guy willing to work his butt off and got to the mat for the team is admirable and likeable, but if he bleeds chances and goals against the “likable” factor better have quite the impact on the team – otherwise he’s a negative influence overall. The stuff you can measure also matters. Like, a lot.

          • beloch

            Is it there Kent? Great question. Why is it so valued if you can’t measure it? Why do teams dump the puck in the corner of the other team’s best def in the playoffs when as you have said earlier, hitting does not lead to more wins? And, why give the puck to the other team’s best puck handler? As I said, it is great that you are very statistically driven as stats do tell a great deal. But, not the whole story.

        • SmellOfVictory

          Asking a hockey player to analyze hockey is like asking a schitzophrenic to analyze schitzophrenia; are they deeply involved in it? Absolutely. Does that make them better at analyzing the underlying situation than a third party analyst? Not necessarily.

          • beloch

            Ok then, don’t ask the guys playing the game. Ask all these people coaching why they value something like this so much. Why are the Bob Nystroms, the Milan Lucic, and players of that nature so valuable and so effective, especially when it matters.

          • loudogYYC

            You’re talking about 2 different types of players. This discussion began with Mike Brown and the role of goons and you’re bringing up Bobby Nystrom and Milan Lucic?

            Nystrom and Lucic don’t fit that bill at all. I think the players coaches value are the Steve Begin types, they bust their ass on the ice and they listen to everything the coach says.

            Toughness is part of the game, if you’re a one dimensional player, your dimension better be scoring goals cuz toughness alone doesn’t make you a useful NHLer.

          • mk

            I think the point that they’re trying to make is that a player needs to be able to use their size to help win.

            Size with skill = WIN
            Size without skill = LOSE

            It is not just size that matters; its how you use it.

            EDIT: I didn’t mean for that to sound quite so dirty. Focus on the hockey.

    • loudogYYC

      I think you countered your own argument. “Sometimes” helping on the ice gets most fringe players a ticket to the AHL.

      I agree team toughness is important, and I seriously agree that 2 of the 4 players you mention help a team in more than 1 way. Bieksa is a top 4 defender than can play a nasty brand and Kassian looks to have the potential to be that rare breed of hockey player that can score 30 and beat you up if he feels like it. It sure is nice to have one of those.

      Truth is though, the NHL is way too fast and athletic to have a dedicated goon taking up a roster spot and 2 minutes of ice time a game.

    • Captain Ron

      “Kevin Bieksa or Aaron Volpatti or Dale Weise or Zack Kassian to do it. Guys who aren’t really that great but can take opposing players off the ice for 5 minutes and can get the crowd into it.”

      Oh yeah, Kevin Bieksa doesn’t do much on the ice at all. He’s only a top 2 dman on a 2 time president’s trophy winning team.

      Yeah. Definitely a pure enforcer with no talent. Hit the nail right on the head on that one.

  • Michael

    ‘I don’t ever expect Backlund to be a high-end point getter – the 40-some point pace he has this year is probably a good expectation going forward’

    I think this goes to the heart of the issue. Many fans had the expectation that Backlund would be a point getter, which is why many fans were disappointed with the past few seasons. Kent certainly led the charge hilighting other areas of play. Fans should adjust their expectations from a scoring first liner to a two way 40 point second liner, and everyone will be much happier.

  • loudogYYC

    backlunds recent development just cost tambellini his job lol kidding. i was one of the mickis is a potential bust guys but he has gained tremendously with the lockout, gave him valuable icetime he didnt get under dutter/butter.

  • acg5151

    Been right there with you Kent last summer when we were preaching patience for young Backlund & many were wanting him run out of town. A lot of that talk was around the time Turris was available in Phoenix & many wanted to throw him in with a 2nd or another player. Glad we kept him. Wonder what his extension is going to look like. Also, I think you partly touched onwhat I asked last thread about what’s wrong with the Oiler rebuild. They are screaming lack of toughness but they do have some big guys like Brown. Thing is, its the wrong mix. You need talented tough guys like Lucic, Ott, guys like that. Oilers have too many same type of future superstars & they dont want to let any go to get the proper pieces to correct the mix. However on that note, it’s looking like Tambellini is getting fired today.

  • mk

    I’ll admit I’ve always liked Backlund, mainly because he was a change from the usual draft-huge-defensemen strategy, but also because of KW’s work in showing his value. Hats off to you Kent, you nailed it.

    Let’s get him on a longer contract at a number that makes sense. He’s shown that at worst he’s an excellent #3 center and could be a great #2 center. He’ll settle somewhere in that range.

  • Brent G.


    I do completely agree with what you are saying although dont understand why GMs are so likely to employ a player or two of this ilk. It’s easy to say they aren’t that intelligent in their decisions but realistically that just isn’t the case. No GM got to this point in their career by being stupid (sans Milbury). They must see something in these players. What is it?

    I know advanced stats are becoming adapted to many teams decisions although they still make decisions where these stats don’t justify it. What is the limitations of these stats that makes a GM with seemingly all of this information (ie the flames) still look beyond to pull the trigger? It’s ignorant to think we are truly smarter than the people in charge of these clubs so there must be more to it, I’m just not sure what exactly those factors are…

  • Captain Ron

    At some point during last season I commented how positive it was at the time for the Flames to be getting Backlund in the lineup again after he returned from an injury or whatever had kept him out. I took a little heat for it back then but feel vindicated now. I’m a fan of this kid and believe he can become a solid 50 point two way player when he peaks. His next contract should both give him a significant raise and at thee same time be a good value contract for the team moving forward.

  • Captain Ron

    I’m eating some humble pie now regarding Backlund. I was off the Backs fan wagon the last couple of years! Between injury after injury and management really not giving him as much ice time he should of had , regardless of this team being old, I lost the faith! Glad to have been proven wrong in this case! So strange to see him with almost 19 minutes of time per game! Glad you kept the faith! I’m back on the Backs train!

  • Jeff Lebowski

    My concerns with Backlund can essentially be centred on expectation. I’ve always admired his niftiness with the puck, his skating and vision. To me, with these tools he should produce. Finish his chances.

    At some point, all advance stats aside, you’d like to see more pucks put in the net rather than in the goalie’s equipment.

    Now I can appreciate the long term effect of being boss of differentials. I just see his talent and wonder why he can’t produce more than 40 pts without negatively affecting his Corsi etc. He does so many good tactical things, skilled things but why isnt he converting more at the moment of truth? Luck? To me it’s the mental part. Is a guy getting in his own way? What would happen if he learned to get out of his way? Is that the difference, all things being equal, between a consistent 30 goal guy and a consistent 20 goal guy? One is more lucky?

    You gotta score more than the other team to win. Why doesn’t he score more with all that talent? The stats are great and all but at some point you just gotta put the puck in the net with all those chances he skillfully earns.

    He needs to do that a little more consistently (without sacrificing his advanced stat primo status). 60-70 pts given his pedigree.

  • Jeff Lebowski

    @ Kent

    So what are the numbers for a player like Aliu?

    I have no use for the enforcer type of player in the league that only goes out to fight other enforcers and I see a player like Brown being a huge disadvantage to a team when he is only good for a handful of minutes and a staged fight a game.

    While I like your one comment about differentiating between “I like” and “Is useful” I have to take the stance that an agitator or pest has a lot more usefulness to their game than does an enforcer.

    The general opinion held by you and many on the board is that Akim Aliu is not an NHL player and yet when I watch what he has the potential to do in a game and the impact he can have on the emotions of a game and on the other team I find it hard to believe that there is not a role for him on this team. I would rather have Aliu than McGratton playing because I think that if you have a player taking semi-late hits, driving hard to the net, using a big body to knock around skilled players, and chirping to the other teams bench than I think you have a great opportunity to sway a games emotions that a hockey fight can only dream it can still do.

    Is Aliu that much of a defensive liability that he cant play at this level? Or does he just need to be placed in a role with linemates that allows him the freedom to run roughshod and create havoc on the ice?

    I will gladly accept the argument that his problem might be more with consistency of playing this style than his ability to contribute by playing the style.

    • Can’t say with Aliu…sample size too small. I don’t really think he can skate at the NHL level well enough to get around, but that’s just based on a few viewings.

      There are guys who can definitely be useful in these roles. There are a lot of guys who aren’t though.