With Darren Dreger recently tweeting that the Flames are shopping Backlund, it seems more and more that the former first rounders time with the organization is drawing to a close. We’ve defended backs around here a lot over the years, so this is going to seem redundant, but here’s a bit on why moving him for pennies on the dollar is a bad bet.
It’s been well established around these parts – Mikael Backlund is a top-5 player on this team in terms of driving possession. He led the Calgary Flames forwards by that metric over the last two years and is top-3 amongst regular forwards this year (despite starting from the defensive end more often). He’s not an overly compelling player in general because he doesn’t regularly do the spectacular stuff – he doesn’t fight or smash people into the boards and his offense is uneven at best. All he does is drive play into the offensive end.
An apt comparison might be baseball player Scott Hatteberg from the Oakland A’s (featured in Moneyball). Billy Beane signed Hatteberg off the scrap heap because he was good at getting on base – an unsexy metric (at the time) that correlated to runs and wins.
Because OBP was unsexy it was also cheap. Corsi and other possession metrics are the same in hockey today – over the long run, a higher corsi rating correlates with a better goal differential and wins, but in the short term it’s something that can be overwhelmed by the osscilations of fortune. The best teams in the league tend to consistently control the puck and spend more time in the offensive zone, meaning they aren’t overly reliant on all world goaltending or a high shooting percentage. Ergo, to eventually become a good team, the club should collect and keep as many possession players as possible.
Backlund, at 24 years old, does things that help teams win over the long-term. He’s not elite, so he can’t turn the boat around by himself, and his offense is underwhelming relative to his skill set. Unfortunately, that often means people focus on what Backlund isn’t rather than what he is – a useful, cheap, middle-tier forward who drives play in almost any circumstance.
– Another problem with trading Backlund now is the org is unlikely to get much in return for him. Because he doesn’t have good counting numbers and there are now questions about his viability as an NHLer, Calgary will be lucky to do better than a second round pick or middling prospect in return. It’s the kind of move the Oilers made in the early stages of their rebuild (see: Kyle Brodziak). Giving away established 24-year old centerman out of frustration or because he isn’t an bovious star is a good way to spin your wheels.
– It looks like to me that the decision makers have decided they’d rather bet on Colborne than Backlund moving forward, which results in the log-jam and "need" to move Mickis.
I liked the Colborne acquisition and I’m hoping he becomes something for the team, but aside from his size, there’s no reason currently to believe Colborne will be better the Backlund. His possession rates this year are worse (even though he starts way more often in the offensive zone), his even strength shot rate is worse and he has just as many points in the same number of games as Backlund. It might be tempting to give Colborne the benefit of the doubt given his age, but the fact is he’s just 10 months younger than Mikael, but has played about 160 less NHL games.
It’s possible Colborne will become a useful NHLer, but it’s also possible he’s a replacement level plug. If any center on this club should be getting the ambivalent "up-and-down the line-up treatment" it’s Joe Colborne, not Backlund – the former hasn’t proven anything at this level yet and doesn’t have any compelling results under his belt as a Flame, be it conventional stats or "advanced" metrics.
– Related: one of the many reasons I am against the frequent deployment of enforcers is their presence neuters an entire forward unit each night. Or, to put it another way, if the club had two functional bottom six combinations, it’s doubtful anyone would talk about having to choose Colborne over Backlund or vice versa.
Because a line featuring a tough guy can only see 5-7 minutes of ice time per night (and usually they are very unproductive minutes, because it is essentially like skating short-handed), everyone else on that trio is rendered ineffective. For example, in an alternate universe, the Flames could skate these two units:
- Bouma – Backlund – D. Jones
- Galiardi – Colborne – B. Jones
Or some mix of players therein. Instead, the team chooses to go with a functional third line and then a usless fourth unit because the two other guys have to carry around Brian McGrattan. An enforcer-less bottom-six would mitigate any questions about keeping Backlund or playing him versus Colborne because each guy would still have a fighting chance to be useful in this configuration no matter how you jumbled things.
Instead, the club is may trade Backlund for a nominal return essentially so they can gamble on Joe Colborne and play McGrattan every game.