Flames With and Without Backlund

Mikael Backlund has been injured since the 8th game of the season. He is scheduled to return sometime this month and the team has played about 10-games without him, so let’s take a look at what his return might mean for the club.

The Flames stumbled out of the gate, again, but a great deal of their poor results can be attributed to terrible percentages, particularly near-league worst goaltending. As we discussed earlier in the season, however, Calgary actually had surprisingly strong shot and possession numbers through the first five-to-ten games or so. In fact, the Flames were a top-5 team in the league by these sorts of measures at the time. That’s good, because teams that rely on outshooting rather than percentages for their success almost always enjoy greater long-term success. Just ask the 2011-12 Minnesota Wild.

Unfortunately, Calgary’s underlying numbers have sunk rapidly since Backlund was injured. They are currently 16th in the league in terms of fenwick close (a possession stat that excludes block shots and corrects for playing to score effects) at 50.78, which is just barely treading water. If that downward trend continues, they’ll be in the red by this weekend. 

With or Without You

We can look at a number metrics beyond fenwick to determine how/if Backlund’s absense has affected the team. First up, here is how the Flames scoring chances have fallen with and without Backs on the roster:

With Backlund For Against ES For ES Against
game 2 ANA 18 17 16 16
game 3 VAN 14 14 11 11
game 4 EDM 18 13 14 10
Game 6 CHI 35 14 23 11
Game 7 DET 12 12 10 8
Game 8 CBJ 16 9 14 6
Total 113 79 88 62

The above table shows total chances for and against as well as chances at even strength. As you can see, the Flames were above water in both respects, particularly at ES where they were +26 in the 6 games counted (I missed the first contest of the year and another was counted by Justin).

That total is propped up by the Chicago game where the Flames put together their most dominant period in recent memory, at least in terms of shots and chances. They were +12 at even strength that night, pretty much entirely because Backlund’s line finished +14, -2.

Still, Calgary was never in the red in this sample and above water in 4 of the six games by my count.

Now, here’s how they have done without Backs:

Without Backlund For Against ES For ES Against
Game 9 VAN 13 20 11 16
Game 10 MIN 10 8 8 6
Game 11 DAL 20 18 18 12
Game 12 STL 15 18 12 16
Game 13 DAL 19 11 14 8
Game 14 PHX 15 16 13 13
Game 15 LAK 18 14 13 11
Game 16 PHX 17 15 15 13
Game 17 MIN 13 25 5 14
Game 18 VAN 16 19 12 17
Total 156 164 121 126

Obviously not as good. Calgary has marginally won the chance count 5 times in this sample but are in the red overall. They were also absolutely pummeled by St. Louis and Los Angeles through the first half of those losses and then pulled closer when their opponents sat back to protect the lead.

The difference at ES with and without Backlund for the Flames this year is +26/-5 or +31. Per game, that’s +4.33/-0.6 or a delta of +4.93 chances differential/game. 


I hesitate to attribute the entire difference to Mikael Backlund, even as good as he was playing in the early going. Calgary played strong fundamentally to open the season and had a pretty favorable, home-heavy schedule. There’s no doubt at least some of the difference is due to natural variance via chance or circumstance. Also, I don’t correct for playing to score effects in my chance counts, so there’s a possibility that has skewed things somewhat. Teams with leads tend to sit back and allow shots/chances, while chasing clubs amp up their efforts, inflating their totals. 

Still, there’s evidence that Backlund was a key figure nevertheless. In 8 games, his relative corsi (possession rate relative to the rest of the team) was +22.4 corsi/60. In other words, the Flames directed 23.87 more shots at the net than they gave up per hour when Backlund was on the ice. When he was on the bench, that rate plummeted to just 1.47/60. That’s a huge difference.

In addition, if you peruse Backlund’s individual player WOWY tables here, you’ll notice almost everyone who played with Backlund saw his possession rate increase. Some notables include:

  • Stempniak: 65% with, 49% without
  • Cammalleri: 61% with, 47% without
  • Glencross: 61% with, 52% without
  • Baertschi: 56% with, 42% without

Of course, aside from the small sample caveat and schedule issues mentioned, this analysis also points to how poor the Flames alternatives at center are absent Backlund thanks to their lackluster depth chart.


None of this suggests the return of Backlund to active duty will instantly turn the Flames around – they will need at least average or better goaltending to do that and a single skater has next to no impact on a goaltenders SV% from game-to-game. 

Still, the kid was tilting the ice in the Flames favor to a non-trivial degree when he was around, something that has more or less evaporated since he left. HIs return this month may be too late or not enough to save Calgary’s playoff hopes by that time, but this is pertinent information to keep in mind if Feaster and company are making decisions about who to keep and what direction to go around the deadline.

  • @the-wolf

    To put it bluntly, “you’re” being handcuffed by an egotistical arsehole. The more I hear about Iginla, the less I think he is the “leader” and “just a real nice guy”. This organization is being held hostage by someone that cares more about padding their stats and making $7M a year (for what?) than winning a Cup or contributing positively.

    If Iginla really cared, he would’ve waived his NTC long ago. If he really wanted to play for the Flames, he would’ve signed one of the TWO contract extensions he’s already been offered. But instead, he’s chosen not to sign anything and wait until the offseason – well, Jarome, that may be too late, you clown.

  • beloch

    Backlund definitely looked like he took a step forward this year, but his durability is still in question, and it’ll be even more in question if his play takes a step backwards after he returns. What kind of contract do you see him being offered? I honestly can’t see management giving him a big, long contract when he hasn’t proven he can both play well and stay healthy on a consistent basis. Will he settle for another short-term contract so he can prove his worth, or are we in for some drama(TM) this summer?

  • beloch

    The big wigs and media-types would probably love to sell another player as “Elite”, but the Flames really don’t have anyone fitting that bill. Cammalleri could probably stand up to a bit more pressure from the spotlight, but even he’s a bit of a stretch. Like it or lump it, Iggy’s the face of the franchise.

  • RKD

    Backs had a strong start to the season, had he not gone down I was thinking this would have been his rebound season. It’s obvious that Roman Cervenka is far more comfortable playing on the wing.

    Backlund is pretty good defensively, something we lacked since we traded away Daymond Langkow.

  • icedawg_42

    Backs was a beast to start the season. I hope his return isn’t being rushed. Was initially supposed to be 6 weeks right? I guess another week or 2 would put that right about correct. Hopefully he picks up where he left off – he sure was fun to watch.

  • RedMan

    what I find interesting is that we are talking about Backlund, Stempniak, Stajan(!?!), and even Brodie and Baertschi…

    while we have all been busy arguing for or against a rebuild (or at least the style of rebuild), it looks to me like we are well into the process of passing the torch from Iginla (&Cammy/Tanguay).

    Unfortunately, we are passing from a franchise right winger to a solid two-way 2nd line center that can fill in the first line once in a while in bursts if necessary.

    Still, I can’t help but think that somehow the sum is still less then the parts – that they have more to give… this group. I guess I have a cool-aid hangover?

    • Nah, not koolaid. As I’ve said this year, the Flames are better than their results indicate. Or, at least, their performance to date is better than their record, which has been sunk by terrible goaltending.

      The Flames at least have some pieces. They aren’t CBJ bad and from what I can tell are still a 7-10 club give or take. Of course, they have one of the most expensive rosters in the league so this isn’t something to necessarily brag about.

      The problem is, as far as I can tell, they are still pretending Jarome and Miikka are elite. They aren’t. And they aren’t getting better. If you could plop one or two high-end players on this roster and re-structure the cap budget somewhat, you’d have something, but as it the team is stuck in neutral.

      • Parallex

        I don’t think they’re pretending that Jarome is elite. If they were Hartley wouldn’t have shifted the lines to put Iginla with Hudler and Cervenka vs. the Canucks. Nah?

        • Hartley, probably not, although Iginla still plays a ton and has only been shifted from the top line maybe 3 times this year.

          The big wigs and established media still talk about those guys as if it’s 2003 most of the time though.

          • Parallex

            It’s really just the established media. I mean unless you know for a fact that the bigwigs talk behind closed doors as if those two were elite then really all it is is performance art so that the media can have their precious traditional narratives (and not have to be actual journalists) to sell to the public.

          • Well, Im judging the management by their actions – if they rated Iginla at all similarly to myself, they would have started shopping him two years ago. Ditto Kipper. The long tail-off was rather predictable if you were looking from the right angle, so I can only conclude they still think those guys are still high-end.

          • Parallex

            Depends on how you look at it… maybe from a hockey ops standpoint it made sense to make transactions on them a few years ago but the flames don’t operate in an empty arena, I’d be willing to wager that from a sales/marketing standpoint they concluded that it made more sense to keep them then to move them. They’re probably right.

            It’s water under the bridge now. Random question: Assuming that he wants to stay and won’t ask to waive his NMC… what does he get in extension? Doan makes 5.3 would he be the most logical comparable?

          • Parallex

            I would have to think you’re bang-on with Doan as the comparable. 5/sounds about right.

            I think the bigger question is term. How long do you go? I can’t see Iginla agreeing to do a series of 1 years ala Selanne and Lidstrom.

          • Parallex

            Ideally one year at a time, two would be the more likely… you want to limit your risk vis-a-vie the 35+ contract (or did they eliminate that in the MOU?).

          • Parallex

            People usually don’t want to stay when they’re not wanted. Sundin, obviously, is an exception. But players with NTCs have been moved before.

            I fully endorse the notion that if Calgary had drafted and developed another RW who potted 50 goals that that RW would now be on the 1st line and Iginla permanently on the 2nd line. Though you never really know with Calgary.

            That said, they didn’t and until this season they have deployed Iginla as though he were still 26. Nor have they even attempted to shop him by all accounts.

            I mean, if you’re supposedly not still building around Iginla and yet you’re not shopping him either and thre’s no heir apparents on the horizon and you can’t make the playoffs either, then…..what are you doing?

  • Parallex

    Well know more about this team soon enough. When Backlund and Kipper return to game shape we should see our fortunes change. Those two along with Wideman are more central to our success than I think most realize.

    Given our depth charts we don’t have replacements for both and we’ve struggled as a result. Our PP not being sharp lately has contributed to our failure also….

  • Parallex

    When should Mickis be back anyways? I know he has the yellow jersey on now but how long do guys typically wear the yellow before coming back (assuming no setbacks)?