Random Thoughts – More MIkael Backlund



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.

  • @Colin.S @Ryan Pike

    Exactly – The flames have said plenty of times that an abundance of decisions is not a concern for them. So if it becomes an issue of suddenly there’s ‘too much depth’ at one position and you don’t have a place for your prospects on the big team then it’s a good thing. But, if they’re truly moving Backlund because of that alone then once again management are a bunch of bonafide pandering BS’ers. They lie to fans saying one thing then do exactly what they say they aren’t going to do. They keep saying that they’re not going to trade away the future and yet now Backlund is the first on the list to be moved? Not say Glencross or Stajan?

    In my opinion. If the Flames are in need of making a place for Knight and Granlund then the option should be to trade Stajan. When Stajan is on he’s a good 2 way centre but when he’s off he’s an awful centre at best. And unfortunately Matt Stajan is off more than he is on and has been his whole career.

    And if trading the soon to be 25 year old when you’ve notably said you lack players in that age category during a rebuild is the solution then this management is clearly not the ones to be in charge of a rebuild.

  • Question: if you’re resigned to the fact they’ll prob just get a 3rd for Backlund, would you rather trade him for a player that may be overpaid/underperforming in his current situation, that has 1 more yr left on their deal?

    2 guys off the top of my head: Tomas Fleishmann & Martin Erat.

    The thinking being: they only have 1 yr left, so they’re not a big hindrance to the long term payroll (something that searching the UFA market might be). With Cammalleri gone next yr, and the Flames already near the bottom in payroll, they’re gonna need to spend $ on somebody for next yr. Signing a UFA to an inflated contract with term probably isn’t in their best interest at this time. Adding a player that may be overpaid but just has 1 yr left on his contract for pennies on the dollar might be the smart play (regardless of whether Backlund is involved). Then, at next yrs deadline, you could likely salvage a pick for said player anyways.


  • T&A4Flames

    Kent, I like your bottom 6 configuration. Play those lines and if aparticular line is going, move them up ice time wise.

    I suspect this is more of other teams inquiring given Backs perceived struggles with the coach and CGY is listening. Why not see what potential value is out there. He could be an important piece in a salary dump trade that nets us a bigger return.

    I just hope that the management hasn’t given up on Backlund and are ok dumping him for peanuts just zo they can bring up another prospect.

  • T&A4Flames

    First paragraph moves from shopping him to getting pennies on the dollar.

    Yeah, we really need an argument for why we shouldn’t make a trade for pennies on the dollar.

    • The transition between shopping him and pennies on the the dollar is that Backlund doesn’t do the “spectacular stuff,” but that what he’s good at wins hockey games and is under valued. You imply there’s a non sequitur but there isn’t.

  • Graham

    I suspect that their to the more to the Backlund story than meets the eye. Reading between the lines, it’s clear that when negotiating the last two contracts, the Flames and Backlund are miles apart in the role that they see him playing. For the Flames, he is seen as a bottom six defensive center with limited scoring (thus a limited salary) , while Backlund believes that he is at least a second line two way forward, with first line upside. The team and player are simply miles apart, and you have to wonder how much bad blood has developed. I don’t suspect that Backlund with the way he is being deployed. (largely fourth line duty)

    I don’t believe that he is a top six forward (lack of scoring), but he clearly adds value to the bottom six. I would only move him if you can bring back a similar type of player who would also benefit from a change in scenery. (a swap of like for like)

  • Lordmork

    From the way they’ve played Backlund this year, it seems clear the organization doesn’t value what he does and expects more out of him. That’s fine, except that what he does is quite important, and the team doesn’t seem to be willing to give him then necessary conditions to allow him to succeed.

    If “all” Backlund is is a defensive third-line centre with good possession rates, then he still has value for the organization and I’m not sure why A) he’s been buried on the fourth line, and B) the team is playing Colborne so much more. And if the team doesn’t see the value of Backlund, and prefers Colborne despite that he’s a demonstrably worse at possession, then it gives me no confidence that this team has any idea about what wins hockey games, and prefers size and “grit.”

    I think this is why this rebuild has been frustrating in a lot of ways. Exactly what is the team is rebuilding towards?


    Also the fact that there is no guarantee that Stajan resigns. Monahan is also only a 19 year old rookie and expecting him to be able to compete competently against other teams top lines shouldn’t be expected for at the very least 2-3 years. Backlund is the perfect safety blanket to hold on to until potential guys like Knight, Monahan, Arnold, Granlund, etc can develope into NHLers without being thrown to the wolves against a brutal conference and division. Trading him makes zero sense to me until you have at least 2 bonafide NHL centres that are signed for a significant amount of time.

  • My, uh, “interpretation” of the decision-making process is that Backlund’s 24 (turning 25 mid-season) and the team probably feels like they know what he’s like at the NHL level. Outside of the strong possession numbers, he can’t score and he gets a fairly major injury every year.

    Plus, they need to move a center so Markus Granlund or Corban Knight can get a chance to play in Calgary.

    • piscera.infada

      How dare you not spout platitudes about a guy who could/would/should/may be a mediocre second line centre.

      @Kent Wilson

      [Colborne]…doesn’t have any compelling results under his belt as a Flame

      What “compelling results” does Backlund have under his belt? The ability to lead an old-tired-slumping team in possession the last few years? I’m willing to grant that it’s more than Colborne has, but not substantially more – he hasn’t helped this team win, he hasn’t helped them in any sort of playoff push, and he hasn’t generally been a go-to difference maker (not that he needs to be, but I’m unsure why he’s thusly deemed an untouchable in that regard).

      I’m really not trying to pile on a player that I really like, and I will be the first to agree that his deployment has been a head-scratcher. That said, I really can’t justify the absolutism with which trading that particular player is deemed a “mistake” before we see what kind of a package is actually put together. It’s only a mistake insofar as the return in horrible (ie: Backlund straight-up for a pick). I really don’t believe the higher-ups are ready to just throw the poor guy away for peanuts.

      • SmellOfVictory

        Trading Backlund is likely a mistake because players of his type tend not to be considered particularly valuable on the trade market, but are very valuable to team success. The trade market tends to value scoring, physicality, and other things that look impressive and Backlund doesn’t really have in spades.

        His compelling results are simply that he is actually a high-functioning support player on a team that doesn’t exactly have a glut of them.

        • piscera.infada

          Look, if you and anyone else want to get bent out of shape that trades are being discussed, then do it. I’m just trying to add some sober thought to the hysterical masses who are lining up to jump off the Calgary tower because the Flames are taking some calls on the guy.

          Where I differ from most of the people espousing the “worst idea ever” argument, is that I don’t believe that the Flames are dumb enough to trade Backlund unless the return is going to be more than decent (whether that’s a pipe-dream or not). There’s no issue in taking calls – absolutely none. If you’re assuming they’re going to trade Backlund for a bag of pucks and large double-double because that fits your expectation that management is incompetent, then that’s your prerogative – and unfortunately for you, this isn’t the first time you’ll be driven to hemorrhoids by the rebuild.

          • This is a huge assumption. I would bet a lot that Backlund is not worth a 1st rounder by most GM standards and a second or third is not worth it. Any current player you trade him for is not likely to have the same 2 way skills.

            I hope you are right but I just don’t see equal or better value happening. 95% sure that if we trade him right now, we lose the trade.

          • I hear you and don’t think a good return is impossible but I have serious doubts. Wasn’t that example of Gaustad at the deadline? In general, IIRC, teams will pay more at that time though I could be wrong.

          • SmellOfVictory

            I don’t think anyone’s getting bent out oh shape. Listen to offers, sure, but ghe Flames r dealing from a position of weakness, as Backlund isn’t a sell high asset right now.

          • prendrefeu

            ??????? I’m totally confused with your last statement about us dealing with a position of weakness. Oh contraire! 30 mill of cap space, almost mathematically eliminated from playoffs already, 1st year of declared rebuild, I think we are in the drivers seat with dealing with most teams in the league.

          • SmellOfVictory

            I’m not getting bent out of shape; I’m just saying it’s probably a bad idea. It’s highly unlikely that the return they would get for Backlund is as valuable to the team as Backlund generally is (when he’s not relegated to 8 min/night on the 4th line).

            If they do get a good value return for him, then great. Although I’ll be a bit choked that one of my favourite Flames is gone.

          • piscera.infada

            If they do get a good value return for him, then great. Although I’ll be a bit choked that one of my favourite Flames is gone.

            For sure, I’ll be hitting the Martell hard if that day comes.

          • SmellOfVictory

            He was more effective than Nugent-Hopkins at even strength in the spring. I haven’t watched RNH this season, though.

            I’ve never had delusions of Backlund being a top line offensive centre, but the fact of the matter is that he had five years’ development on a kid who was barely a year removed from his draft.

      • piscera.infada

        He may not have “compelling results” but it’s one more piece. Everyone knocks the Oilers for their rebuild, but we want to toss a 24 year old centre who puts the puck in the other team’s zone.

        I agree with you in theory, but I still maintain that Backlund has more value plaing for the team than as a trade asset. That’s where the absolutism comes from. Because it seems like a trade the Flames would be destined to lose.

        • piscera.infada

          The ‘compelling results’ claim wasn’t made by me. It was simply posited that Backlund does have compelling results. I’m asking what those are.

          While I agree with you, he does have more value playing for the team then he does in a one-off trade. But it seems to me the absolutism is only warranted if the line from management was “we’re trading Backlund for whatever we can get – regardless of return, it’s happening”. I Haven’t heard that, so to assume that he’s going to be traded for nothing is capricious.

          I don’t have a four year timeline – I for one, don’t think a hard timeline on a rebuild does anything positive at all for anyone. I’m just saying you have to be open when teams are kicking tires. Again, I don’t want to trade Backlund – I want everyone to sit down to a nice Christmas dinner, and their kids can be lifelong friends so they all grow old together thusly being buried beside each other along the Bow River.

          Seriously though, I actually really don’t think we’re that far off in opinion. I just don’t see it as definitively horrible asset management until I can see the return.

          • Gange

            “The ‘compelling results’ claim wasn’t made by me. It was simply posited that Backlund does have compelling results. I’m asking what those are.”

            I realize that wasn’t you and was agreeing with you that he doesn’t per se, but…….

            Agree about a hard time line, just trying to point out that Backlund is of that age group where he’ll still be highly useful at the end of it. Feaster was just saying again the other week about how the team lacks guys in that age range which makes the whole rumor a little strange from that POV.

    • Colin.S

      I really hope the last line is sarcasm, because if that is truly the Flames thinking they need to move a center to bring either one of those guys up, I don’t even know where to begin.

      I know the trade deadline is a while away yet, especially being an Olympic year and all, but with Stajan, Stempniak and Camms all likely being moved out, moving Backlund early in the season, so that Knight or Granlund can play earlier all but ensures we never win another game after the trade deadline. Saddly enough that’s probably the best reason to keep Backlund around instead of trading him now, is that come trade deadline he’ll be one of the older/more experienced forwards on the team. Trade him in the offseason, I think he’ll still be an RFA I believe so he’ll still have some value.

  • Colin.S

    Oh Kent you’ve done it now, suggesting that MacGratton be sat, but then who will angrily stare at our opponents and put some fear into them that stops them from taking cheap shots at our actual good players???