With five goals and eight points in his last four games, Mikael Backlund has finally arrived as a player of note in the minds of the general Calgary fanship.
His offensive outburst couldn’t have come at a better time for the organization: had Backlund continue to struggle to put up points, I have no doubt Calgary would have looked into moving him, either at the deadline or in the off-season. A dry spell could still happen, of course, which would leave the possibility of a trade open, but putting together a seemingly dominant stretch like this one will at least give the decision makers pause.
– It’s at this point that I should note that the math liked Backlund way before popular sentiment caught up. Although he seems to have taken some steps forward this year in terms of offensive ability, the truth is Backlund has been a useful player for at least two seasons. It was just much less obvious when the pucks weren’t going in for him, particularly if you weren’t aware of underlying numbers.
– While much of Backlund’s play now is the same as it was before he started scoring, there definitely seems to be a qualitative change in his performance north of the red line. Some of this may be just perception – better opportunities, better line mates and better bounces make a guy seem different, even if he is more or less the same player.
That said, a few months ago I noted that Backlund’s offensive game still seemed overly tentative – after falling down the depth chart, he played like a man scared of his mistakes. He threw the puck away in the shallow end of the offensive zone and generally abandoned the attack at the slightest provocation.
Wes Gilbertson’s latest on Backlund in the Sun talked about the kid’s work with skills coach Darryl Belfry, who urged Backlund to keep the puck on his stick longer:
"The biggest change in him is understanding how to use his skill to create offence. Having skill and creating offence is not really the same thing," Belfry said.
"To create offence in the NHL is really difficult and there are certain things that you just have to do. What he’s started to do more consistently is extend his possession. When he gets the puck, he’s more willing to hang onto it, to extend the possession, to let the play develop a little bit, which then allows him to make a better decision."
The turning point? A Nov. 30 victory over the Los Angeles Kings, when Backlund assisted on Michael Cammalleri’s game-winner in the final minute.
"I actually remember, against L.A. there, early in the third period, I started skating with the puck and I started feeling it, and I was like, ‘This is how I can play. Why didn’t I do this earlier?’ " Backlund recalled. "The game finished well, and then I just kept going from there."
Normally, I am fairly suspicious of these deus ex machina type stories that surface in the MSM after a given player’s hot streak**, but the explanation for Backlund’s more assertive offensive play is at least semi-plausible I think.
**When Shaw Horcoff scored 21 goals in 53 games in 2007-08 (thanks to a career high 18.3 SH%), the official explanation at the time was his trip to the Easton factory in Tijuana Mexico to find a new stick that revolutionized his game!
– Course, Backlund isn’t going to score two points a game for long and there will no doubt be a drought or two in the near future, so it will be interesting to see if popular opinion shifts on him again or not.
– There is a theory that Hartley’s tough love approach with Backlund near the start of the season was the genesis for the player’s turn-around. I can’t speak one way or the other on the topic since I don’t know what passed between player and coach, but I do know that even "low-offensive zone event" Backlund was one of the better players on this team at the time and wasn’t deserving of the treatment he received, at least on merit and relative ability. If the coach was employing a motivational tactic, then fair enough, but it was difficult to rationalize the treatment of guys like Backlund at the time versus, say, Curtis Glencross or Joe Colborne.
– The good news is Hartley was forced to elevate Backlund thanks to that swath of injuries (which included Sean Monahan back in December) and since then the coach’s decision making has been fairly rational. Hartley seemed totally lost in November when he was playing Reto Berra every night and elevating Joe Colborne to a top-six role (for example). Since about the middle of December, though, Calgary’s line-up and assignments have been inching closer to as ideal as possible givent the roster (with the exception of constatnyl dressing not one, but two enforcers every night).
– Speaking of Berra, I think we’re getting close to declaring that particular experiment over. His SV% is now .891, with a ES SV% of .898. A replacement level ES SV% in the NHL is about .910 and the average ES SV% is .920. The 26-year old has only played 24 NHL games so there’s obviously a sample size issue here, but there really isn’t any reason to think he’s going to get much better. Berra is athletic but his fundamentals are obviously poor, even to someone as uninitiated in goalie scouting as myself.
Joni Ortio, who is sporting a .930 save rate for the Heat (3rd best in the league), will likely get recalled with Karri Ramo on the shelf. It will be interesting to see if the club gives him a look. As for Berra, I’m betting they don’t bother to re-sign him in the off-season.
– Finally, there seems to be some claims that the brawl in Vancouver was somehow the cause of the Flames turn-around. While the timing seems suggestive, the truth is the Flames started to improve long before Hartley goaded Tortorella into embarassing himself…
This chart is the Flames possession rolling average over the course of the season (every 10 games, fenwick score-close). As you can see, Calgary was close to breaking even to start the season, but they began taking on water mid-way through November. From about that point until roughly December 7th, Calgary was one of the worst possession teams in the league. This roughly corresponded with Hartley experimenting with his player deployments, plus a lot of veteran players going down to injury (Mark Giordano was gone for all of November, for instance).
Since then, the Flames have improved at moving the play north drastically, in correspondance with good players returning and the coach making more rational decisions. They haven’t touched average at any point (50%), but I don’t think the elevator shaft plunge of Nomveber 2013 is indicative of the team’s ability either.
The Canucks game was January 18th, which is already after the recovery. The Flames were playing well (err, better at least) by that time, though it wasn’t obvious because the club was struggling through a bout of terrible PDO…
This is the Flames 10-game rolling PDO (ie; save percentage + shooting percentage). The circled portion is Calgary’s horrendous post-Christmas run where the team couldn’t put a puck in the ocean. As you can see, they bottomed out at a 93 PDO (which is dreadful luck) around the middle of January, even though they were much better at controlling possession than they had been in November.
Again, the Vancouver game is on the 18th, near the start (though not quite the true touch-off) of the Flames percentages recovery. It should be noted that the Flames regression back towards the league mean by this measure was expected and inevitable and likely had nothing to do with the fisticuffs in Rogers Arena. Unless you want to believe that McGrattan and Westgarth punching bad guys can somehow suddenly cause the puck to start going into the net more frequently.
There may have been some psychological benefits to the melee in Vancouver. But I’m deeply suspicious that would lead to better bounces
All charts from extraskater.com.