Mikael Backlund vs Frans Nielsen


Frans Nielsen
– pic via Robert Kowal


For those unaware, Frans Neilsen was a darling of the stazis for a long time, in fact even before he began to score 40+ points and get noticed as a Selke candidate. The great Dane fell off this shortened season for whatever reason, but up until recently he was the archetype of a capable, two-way centerman who quietly takes on all the tough match-ups and gets the job done.

Which is why he has become my favorite comparable for the Flames own Mikael Backlund. Like Backs, Nielsen is relatively skilled, but isn’t overly big (6’1", 180 pounds), isn’t an accurate shooter (career SH% of just 9.2%), and boasts above average possession stats in tough circumstances.

Nielsen is now a staple on a very good Islanders team  where he averaged the third most even strength ice time behind first liners John Tavares and Matt Moulson this past season, while also featuring prominently on the PP and PK. Nielsen’s career high in points is just 47, but he remains one of the most important players for New York thanks to his high utility and ability to drive play in less than ideal situations.

The comparison between the two players is an intuitive one given the way Backlund is developing, but is it legitimate? I went back through Nielsen’s first four seasons and then comared them to Backlund’s career so far to see if there was a fit:


Frans Nielsen                
Season Age Rel Corsi rank Rel QofC rank ZS% rank shot rate
2007-2008 24 -11.2 2nd last 0.133 10th 60.0 last 1.06/game
2008-2009 25 12.8 2nd 0.497 7th 46.9 10th 1.71/game
2009-2010 26 13.5 2nd 0.653 3rd 44.5 4th 1.79/game
2010-2011 27 13.5 3rd 0.507 5th 41.4 3rd 2.20/game


Mikael Backlund                
Season Age Rel Corsi rank Rel QoC rank ZS% rank shot rate
2009-2010 21 11.0 1st -0.538 2nd last 58 2nd last 2.04/game
2010-2011 22 15.2 2nd -0.168 3rd last 54.3 3rd last 1.97/game
2011-2012 23 11.7 1st 1.249 5th 44.6 3rd 2.07/game
2012-2013 24 9.7 1st 0.234 6th 45.4 7th 2.75/game


The tables show each player’s relative corsi rate (his possession rate/60 minutes of ice corrected for team strength), as well as relative quality of competition and zone start ratio (offensive faceoffs/defense faceoffs at even strength).

Short version: this table shows how well each player drove possession as well as the circumstances each guy played in.

Also included is each guys rank amongst regular forward for each season in each category. Rank for QoC and ZS are from toughest (1st) to easiest (last).

Shot rate is a look at how many shots per game each player was directing on net.


As you can see, the numbers seem to support the comparison. Nielsen only appeared in 16 games as a 24 year old, but after that he quickly became one of the Islanders most a capable tough minutes options. His sophomore season was somewhat ambiguous with Nielsen finishing as one of the best possession players on the club, but he also started more often in the offensive zone and against lesser competition.

His third year in the NHL is when he really established himself. His zone start ratio plunged to just 44.6% and he started seeing top-six competition. That treatment followed through to the year, but he nevertheless was one of the top-3 forwards at driving the play north.

For Backlund’s part, he’s actually ahead of the Nielsen curve since he is already an established possession driver at 24. Like Nielsen, Backlund spent his first two seasons in the league mostly being sheltered but transitioned to a much tougher role in year three. Backlund’s zone start and quality of competition of have both increased in difficulty the last two years relative to the first wo years, but he has remained the best corsi forwards on the Flames.

Obscuring Backlund’s value in this realm has been rotten shooting percentages (particularly 2011-12) and swath of injuries that had him in-and-out of the line-up. Some might point out that Nielsen has scored 30+ points in the league four times and 40+ twice, but keep in mind he has consistently averaged more than 2 minutes of PP time per game since 2008-09. Backlund, in contrast, has never crested 2 minutes per night, with his highest average being 1:23 from this past year.

What’s also interesting is that Backlund is a higher volume shooter than Nielsen, even though he has played less with the man advantage. This suggests if he could stay healthy and get his SH% up to even a moderately decent rate, Backlund could be the better goal scorer of the two.


The math suggests Nielsen is a decent comparable for Backlund, and in fact it seems the Flames young pivot is tracking ahead of the Islanders centerman given his age and how consistently he has finished atop of the Flames pile in terms of possession metrics.

Like Nielsen, Backlund probably doesn’t have a huge offensive ceiling, but if he can start scoring 40+ points while keeping the puck in the offensive zone in all situations, he’ll be a key contributor to the Flames as they attempt to dig themselves out of the Western Conference basement.

      • Avalain

        I’d love this too, but even last place only gives you a 25% chance at 1st overall. I’d rather be trending up in the year after next and just get lucky with the lottery.

        • PrairieStew

          On the other hand…. this team could make the playoffs this year.

          WAIT — WHAT ??? HOW ??

          1. Emerging talents

          Kent has just made the case that Backlund is an emerging talent. So also is TJ Brodie in my opinion. I think given lots of ice time Sven also fits that category.

          2. Contract years

          4 key veterans up front are playing for UFA contracts. Cammaleri, Stajan, Stempniak and Jackman. This may be their last chance to cash in. They will not be going through the motions. You’ve got some competition for the bottom 2 on defense with 3 of those guys also looking at their walk year(Butler, Russell, Smith)

          3. Defensive intensity

          Speaking of going through the motions, the 2 weakest defensive forwards from last year are gone. Do I have to mention their names ?

          4. Goaltending.

          Last year it was terrible. You have to think it will be better, even if they only move up to 20th in the league in SV% and GAA, if they stay in the top 20 in offense (last year 14th?), that might be enough to be 14-16th overall.

          This would be great but not at the expense of rebuilding for later. I hope that Feaster is permitted to do what Doug Wilson did this year in San Jose, trade the veteran UFA’s despite being in the playoff chase. Frankly with those 7 veteran pending UFA’s I’d like to see another 4 picks in the top 100 next year.

          • McRib

            I actually don’t think its unfathomable that the Flames sneak into the playoffs much like Ottawa two years ago, with how the young guys played to finish the season. That said everything would have to go right for that to happen Monahan & Knight would have to have instant success TJ Brodie, Backlund and Baertschi would have to break out in a big way. The biggest question mark is in goal but considering Berra, Ramo and MacDonald are all competing it should be interesting. Lee Stempniak in particular during UFA years in his carrer has been on another level. Mike Cammaleri also had a great UFA contract year the last time around.

            Its a long shot, although I do think the Flames are better than a bottom three team because of our adequate defence, but you never know could go either way which will be exciting to watch all this progression. No more trying to make the playoffs this team has to earn everything they get, which as a major Flames fan all I care about no more collecting paychecks.

            The reason I think the Flames will fair better than the Oilers the past three years, is we have a much deeper defence than Edmonton did. If the offense gets it done regularly and the goaltending is better than last year you never know.

      • beloch

        What is this obsession with finishing last for the next few years?

        Look at Oilers, ya it looks good on paper but in reality they got some players that have struggled with injuries.

        Those players they drafted are no doubt good, thus went first overall, but weren’t physically ready or whatever the reason..

        Another point is look at Pittsburgh. They have the current Crosby, and arguably the next best player in the world in Malkin, yet they have only 1 cup.

        Look at teams like Boston and LA that are not built around numerous top draft choices. Yet they will remain in the Conference Finals conversation for years to come.

        It came down to shrewd trades that maybe netted players and/or picks of that calibre, but not directly sucking to land them.

        Look at Chicago who, yes drafted rather high a couple times and grabbed Kane and Toews, but aside from those two the rest of their core was aquired via trade or smart later round drafting.

        Dont get me wrong, I would love to have McDavid and have the next Crosby, but I think there are better ways to build than that.

        The lottery has made it so all non-playoff teams have a chance at the top pick. Also, Feaster and co have made it a priority to get the draft right from top to bottom.

        We may not have a Crosby or even a Kane or Teows. But we still have a foundation to build upon without sucking.

        ..Baertschi, Guadreau, Monahan, Brodie, Gillies

        I dont care what anyone says that is a solid top 5 prospects. 4 of which will all but surely play in NHL as soon as next yr.

        Do what the Flames do best, try to win and get into the playoffs, But let the young players fail or succeed in taking you there or not.

        Cause the core is already there they just need to grow up and join some pieces already there (Backlund, Gio, Glen)

        • Avalain

          “Another point is look at Pittsburgh. They have the current Crosby, and arguably the next best player in the world in Malkin, yet they have only 1 cup.”

          Only 1 cup is a big thing. With a perfect level of parity in the league, each team would win only 1 cup every 30 years. Think about that. 30 years from our last cup is 2019. Of course, that level of parity will never happen (even with perfect parity you’d still have random luck), but it’s important to note that there is only 1 team that has won twice in the last 10 years.

          If we draft the “next Crosby” and the “next Malkin” in the next 2 years, and the result is “only 1 cup” I will be ecstatic.

          As for the obsession with finishing last, well, it has a little bit to do with the fact that we simply do not have an elite player of the likes of Crosby, Toews, Stamkos, etc. It also has to do with the fact that trading for these players is virtually impossible. Finally, it seems to me that drafting and scouting are becoming better and better as more teams take advantage of advanced statistics (or maybe it’s just luck).

  • NHL93

    I worry that Backlund will be moved well before this team is decent again, and that his departure will only prolong the suffering.

    What do we think? 5 years before we contend for playoff regularity again? That’s if Feaster is allowed to see his plan through, And his plan is a good one.

    Whatever, I live in England where people only care about this thing called The Ashes and some dude with hair plugs that can kick a ball (supposedly).

    • SmellOfVictory

      Really depends. If enough prospects pan out as we hope they will, the playoffs could be a realistic expectation within three years. The Oilers were hilariously mismanaged during their rebuild, and they may be a playoff team after only five seasons (three if you’re talking about the season they officially accepted the rebuild).

  • beloch

    I want to see the Flames’ management focus on developing a prospect system that produces good players *every* year, rather than trying to restock it in rebuilds only to empty it out chasing the cup. Chasing the playoffs, as Sutter and Feaster both did, is even more foolish! The Flames may be in for a couple of bad years, but let’s not forget how the team arrived in this situation!

    Trading players near their apex *hurts*, but it lets you retain more of their value within the team than if you let them decline. Cammalleri, Wideman, Giordano, Stempniak, Hudler, Stajan and Glencross are probably all post-apex. It’s unfortunate that so much of the team is clustered in the 29-31 age range, but it’s important to move them all soon. This may help the flames get a higher pick this season and the next, but that’s incidental. The important thing is to keep value in the Flames system rather than letting time destroy it! Good goal-tending could easily return the Flames to playoff contention this season, but trading these players would still be imperative.

    Many fans seem to like the idea of a boom and bust cycle where a team builds a pool of assets and, once within spitting range of the cup, blows everything not immediately contributing to a cup run to make it happen. This would be a valid strategy if the odds of losing did not remain significantly high when a team does this. I suspect the future cost of “going for it”, in terms of time spent out of the playoffs, doesn’t make up for the short-term increase in odds. I would like to see the Flames focus on building a system that will always prioritize the future, no matter how tempting it may be to “go for it”. The true test of a GM is not what he does in a rebuild, but what he does when the team is riding high.

    • I concur.

      This is basically what Chicago has done after both of their Cup wins. They traded off those “near apex” players (Byfuglien, Bolland, etc.), brought up their developed prospects, and have had decent enough scouting + drafting to replenish the cupboard.

      Seems to work for them.

      • beloch

        Yeah… except Byfuglien went from a marginal second line forward to a legit top pair D the minute he left.

        So yeah… doesn’t always work out all that well.

      • beloch

        Wow, I can’t believe people still think we might make the playoffs next year… amazing. I think we are going to get a big kick in the sac realizing what a team full of 18-19 year olds with zero NHL experience gets you…..

        And saying LA & Chicago didn’t do a full rebuild is bogus. Both Chicago and LA spent much longer than the Oilers have at rock bottom. The Pens & Chicago both fired their GMs mid rebuild because it was taking too long. Lombardi in LA was a whisker away from being lynched before he pulled off the Carter/Richards trades. All of these teams had 5-7 year rebuilds. Pens got last place the season AFTER drafting Crosby and Malkin (netting them Jordan Staal the following year).

        Think about it… 18 year old Crosby + 19 year old Malkin + 20 year old Fleury = DEAD LAST IN THE EAST.

        A team full of kids in a full blown rebuild does not win. Thats why I don’t understand when people point at the Oilers as a fail already. I think the Penguins did OK for themselves after struggling with 3 1st overall 18 year-20 year olds.

        LA drafted Dustin Brown in 2003. Chicago started with Keith/Seabrook way back whenever, before drafting Kane/Toews 3-4 years later.

        All those teams slowly built up a base of solid players, than added elite talents (Kane, Toewes, Kopitar, Doughty) through consecutive top 5 draft picks.

        None of these teams were built by shrewd drafting, by UFAs or even remotely quickly. They were built with long drawn out, slow rebuilds coupled with shrewd drafting at the very end to compliment their solid base.

        • RedMan

          Fair points you make but I dont foresee our roster being filled with kids until possibly after the trade deadline or unless we get hit by injuries…. even then guys like Street and Breen or Cundari are all in their 20s.

      • SmellOfVictory

        Well Chicago didn’t have much choice. Most of those moves were in the interest of cap compliance. So they did choose the right players to move out, for the most part, but the moves were fundamentally made out of need as much as strategy.

  • prendrefeu

    I actually think the Flames will contend for the playoffs this year. 8th seed maybe, but that’s still the playoffs.

    Why? Because anything can happen. Injuries happen. Sudden emerging talents happen.

    Don’t worry so much about getting the top drafts. The Kings and Boston are great examples of very strong, balanced teams that did not rely on tanking to the top drafts. They simply grew stronger over time, worked on their roster, and there you go.

    Also: what’s up with the obsession for 1st round picks? What is the rate of 1st round picks to Cup conversions or playoff contenders? (Honest question there)

    Theo Fleury was drafted 166th overall.

    • beloch

      It could be argued that a good prospect system might be stocked with more than 1st round picks. By all means, pick up every 2nd, 3rd or 4th round pick you can lay your hands on! Nature has proven that the shot-gun approach works well.

    • supra steve

      “Don’t worry so much about getting the top drafts. The Kings and Boston are great examples of very strong, balanced teams that did not rely on tanking to the top drafts. They simply grew stronger over time, worked on their roster, and there you go.”

      Both these teams have had some luck in the draft outside of the first round. However, they both had some high picks as well. From 2000 to 2011:

      top 15 picks:BOS 5; LAK 8; CGY 5

      top 10 picks: BOS 4; LAK 3; CGY 3

      top 5 picks: BOS 2; LAK 3; CGY 0

      When early picks allow you to aquire assets like D. Brown, Kopitar, Bernier, Doughty, B Schenn, Kessel, Colborne, Seguin, D. Hamilton–good things happen.

      I suggest your statement “Don’t worry so much about getting the top drafts. The Kings and Boston are great examples of very strong, balanced teams that did not rely on tanking to the top drafts. They simply grew stronger over time, worked on their roster, and there you go.”, is just not true.

      The Flames in that span drafted quite poorly, that is a given, but they had no top 5 picks either. So they would seem to be the team following your plan, more so then BOS or LA anyway. And that plan (along with poor drafting/management) has lead us to probably challenging for a top 5 pick over the next few years.

      • piscera.infada

        I don’t think people are saying that they would mind a top 3 pick next year or the year following. The crux of the argument is not to tank for the sake of tanking – which I agree with whole-heartedly. Of course, acquiring top end talent with a first overall draft pick would be awesome, but as was mentioned above, I think we should all be looking for improvement every year. I’m not so optimistic on the competitiveness of this team as some people on here, yet I still don’t see them as an absolute lock for a top 3 pick.

        More to your point, and in fairness to @prendrefeu, Boston’s top-3 picks were a product of the bone-headed Kessel trade (at least boneheaded IMO), not because the team finished dead or next-to-dead last.

        • supra steve

          “More to your point, and in fairness to @prendrefeu, Boston’s top-3 picks were a product of the bone-headed Kessel trade (at least boneheaded IMO), not because the team finished dead or next-to-dead last.”

          No secret that BOS got lucky in the trade with Toronto. They got a #2 overall (Seguin) and #9 (Hamilton), but to get those they did give up a former #5 overall (Kessel) that they got the old fashioned way. More to my point, they DID make those picks and got good players. If anyone has a way to turn Sven or Monohan into the #2 and #9 and a 2nd rounder in the next two years, I’m sure Feaster would be interested in hearing about it. Barring that, the usual way to get those picks is to earn them.

        • Rockmorton65

          Ok. I think we’ll be better than Edm, and probably in the mix with Phx. If any of the others don’t match last years totals, I think we could have a shot.

          Also, don’t forget the wild card spots. I think we’ll be in the mix. There are quite a few variables, but my point is I don’t think the playoffs are out of the question.

          • Scary Gary

            I just caught almost myself almost making an unforgivable error of judgement. When I read you comment I was going to offer a cash wager to put your money where your mouth is. Because there is zero chance we finish ahead of Edmonton this year. None. Never mind the playoffs…. BUT then I realized I’d be betting on the Oilers against the Flames, quickly caught myself, threw up a bit in my mouth and took back that bet.

            Still… The fact you think this team is better than the Oilers right now shows how far up in the koolaide clouds some fans are about this rebuild. The Oilers have 5 players with 2-3 years NHL experience who are ALL better than any player or prospect on our team. I don’t care to debate this, but I’m basically 100% sure we couldn’t pry Hall, RNH, Eberle, Yakupov or Schultz out of Edmonton with a 1 for 1 trade of ANY player or prospect we have.

            AND the Coilers STILL SUCK! I’m not trying to say they are great, but to say we aren’t infinitely worse is delusion. We need to see how bad they suck after a few years of this and realize how far we have to go…. The fact people think we can make the playoffs, in our new division and that we are better than Edmonton at ground zero of our scortched earth rebuild is complete delusion.

            I think you might have been joking though and trying to ruffle feathers. In that case, good work.

          • Rockmorton65

            I wasn’t joking when I said that. I agree there are a number of question marks, but I think we can compete with the Oilers right now. I think we’ve made some significant improvements as a team (see my posts above), with more to come. Before the changes, this “juggernaut” you speak of only finished a few points above us in the standings. I agree we can’t match their top 5-player for player, but I believe we can hang with them as a team.

            Also don’t forget, the noose is tightening on our friends to the north. They NEED to make the playoffs within the next two years or so. The fans are getting restless. And we saw what happened to the Oilers when the pressure turned up during the playoff push.

            This isn’t a “scorched earth” rebuild. We are already on the upswing. Maybe I was a little over zealous in my predictions, but I believe we’ll make the playoffs, the right way, sooner rather than later.

            BTW-I play poker, but I don’t gamble.

          • Avalain

            I’m really excited about the new season, but we can’t possibly be on the upswing before even playing the first game. Personally, I can’t see any indication that we are starting with any stronger of a team now than we did at the start of last season.

            As for Edmonton, it’s almost guaranteed that they will continue to be stronger over the next few years. The top players will be growing into their roles.

            Even worse for us, we are going to have to play against LA, Anaheim, and San Jose more often while playing against Colorado and Minnesota less. Add in Edmonton being better (though we technically play them less) and Vancouver being not-worse-enough and we are suddenly lacking in teams that we used to feast on to bump up our point total.

            That being said, I’m excited to see what the young guys can do, even if we are losing games. And they can always surprise us and everything can fall into place, giving us a playoff spot. I think the chance of it happening is incredibly low, though, and I’m really tired of picking 11-14 overall.

          • Avalain

            Not trying to say we are a good team or anything… I dont think you are underestimating us… you are overestimating the oilers… our AHL squad gave them a beat down…

            They should improve but the losing culture they have ingrained there is proving very difficult to change regardless of their talented young players.

          • Avalain

            “you are overestimating the oilers… our AHL squad gave them a beat down…”

            And a week before that, the Oilers gave the Flames a beat down. Or did you forget about that 8-2 romp on April 3rd?

          • beloch

            Yes… they did a couple days after Iggy and Bouwmeister were shipped out… but I think you missed the rest of my post

            My point was that the oilers are still inconsistent….

            not trying to say the Flames will be good and I did not say the Flames will finish ahead of the oilers… point was just that people are overestimating the oilers… good teams do not beat by farm teams…

          • beloch

            In 2006 the penguins got last in he East. AFTER drafting Crosby, Fleury AND Malkin. Mario Lemieux played along with a still in his prime Gonchar, Ryan Malone and others.

            That last place finish got them Jordan Stahl.

            Point is, it takes time even with generational talents like Crosby.

  • Rockmorton65

    I think we may even be better than last year. While we lost Iggy & Tangs’ points, we gained in energy, size, youth and speed. We are going to establish a new core with players that want to be here and compete and play hard (which was non existent from our “core” last year). Iggy, Bouw and Tangs phoned it in the last couple of years.

    I’m not concerned about replacing Iggy n Tangs points. Last year, they were on pace for a combined 100 points over 82 games. Lets say they would regress to 90 this year. It’s totally realistic for Backlund to get 50-60, given his progression last year. Given that Baertchi will be given top six minutes, 30-40 points isn’t out of the question. Add in Galiardi and Jones and there’s no reason why we can’t match our goal total from last year.

    If we get even slight better goaltending, I can see us in the mix. I like what someone here said about letting our kids take us as far as they can. I see this team in a similar spot to last year, except we’re on the upswing, instead of “another year older”. Losing the Iggy/Kipper/Cervenka/lockout drama of last year helps too.

    That said, I don’t think this is our opening day roster. Feaster said there is a need in our top 6 forwards and our top 4 D. I think at least one of those is filled before the preseason.

    I’m excited about watching a younger, faster team find its way in the next year or so. With all due respect, I can’t buy in to the “doom and gloom for the next half decade” scenario.

  • Rockmorton65

    Seriously, I get optimistic when I think of Baertchi, Monahan, Poirer, Janko, Broissot, Gilles, etc, all hitting their stride in a few years. We could see a team that can compete with the Chicago’s and the Boston’s of the league. I gotta say, I’m liking this rebuild so far.

  • RKD

    Well as long as Backs is healthy hopefully there’s nowhere for him to go but up. I think he can be a 40 point guy in a full season. No way this team makes the playoffs, they are going to get worse before getting better. We always hit 14th in the West but don’t stay there means there’s a lot more growing pains and losses ahead of us.

  • beloch

    Re: The Oilers

    Their top line of forwards is fantastic and may still get even better, although some may be near-apex, but young enough to stay there for a while. Dubnyk, after a couple of league average seasons, went 0.921 over 38 games last season. That’s excellent. The fact that the Oilers finished just 3 points ahead of the Flames, who had the worst goal-tending in the league last season and a rather unconvincing top 3, tells you how much the rest of the players in Edmonton absolutely suck. The Oilers have crap for defense and no depth.

    MacT hasn’t really addressed the Oilers weaknesses yet this off season, and Dubnyk will likely regress towards his career average next season, although that’s hard to predict. As the Oilers stand, they are not a playoff team.

    If the Flames had league average goal tending last season they would have finished well ahead of the Oilers and, as the rosters currently stand, the same will likely be true of next season. If Ramo is a bust or Feaster (wisely) unloads the >28 crowd for prospects and picks, the Oilers will likely chase the Flames at the 2014 lottery.