Random Thoughts: Backlund’s Ascension


– pic via halifaxdrunk


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.

  • EugeneV

    Good article, couldn’t agree more. It’s great to finally see Backlund’s ability as a hockey player translate into some offensive numbers (none of which had to do with Hartley playing him with goons on the 4th line), Berra is terrible, retaining vets does make a difference in results and Hartley finally stopped acting like some dad coaching his kid’s bantam team.

  • piscera.infada

    While I have maintained since about November that Ortio should get one or two starts in the NHL this season (and I still believe that), I don’t think the Flames should count on him being ready to be a full-time backup next year. Give him, I don’t know, 10-15 starts next season (Ramo and one other goalie should make up the difference). Bring him along slow(ish)ly.

    Finally, I’d just like to point out that Berra’s sv% is STILL better than MacDonald’s.

    • piscera.infada

      While I agree I want to see what Ortio can do, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the organization leaves him in the AHL all season. He’s been playing extremely well down there, so it might be beneficial for him to stay in the groove at that level before getting his NHL shot in next year’s preseason to gauge that growth appropriately.

  • Parallex

    Not sure about them not bothering to re-sign him (Berra) in the off-season.

    Not that I think he’s an NHL calibre goalie but I could see them offering him a two-way deal with the intention of using him as a stop-gap back-up if Ortio can’t manage to claim the back-up position in training camp. If Ortio can claim the back-up position (and the Flames don’t ink Gillies) I also don’t think the Flames want Olivier Roy as the defacto starter on the farm either.

  • Lordmork

    Kent’s Backlund tl:dr: “Told you so!”

    I’m really pleased with the play of the Flames as of late. I think it’s really important that they remain a team that knows how to win, especially after that awful stretch of shutouts. I’m hopeful we won’t Steve Begin ourselves out of a high draft pick, but I would argue that a winning culture is more important to the future than the difference between the 3rd overall and the 4th overall, at least this year. Maybe for McDavid we can forget about winning for a little while.

  • BurningSensation

    The MSM really needs to grasp the simple concept that ‘Correlation is NOT causation’.

    I remember a story Bob Johnson told about coaching the US Olympic team. As a team building exercise they all went to see a movie together before the game against the Russians. They picked Kevin Costner’s ‘No Way Out’.

    (Spoiler Alert for ‘Now Way Out’ – which is excellent BTW)

    Johnson was incensed afterwards finding out that Costner was a double agent for the Russians.

    When the team later struggled against Russia, what do you think Johnson blamed? Nope, not zone entries. Nope, not Derian Hatcher. He blamed the choice of movie.

  • Lordmork

    According to Randy Sportak on twitter, the Heat have signed goalie Thomas Heemskerk to a PTO. With MacDonald hurt and Roy already called up, it sounds like we could be seeing Ortio.

  • seve927

    I mentioned this last week, so I’ll just update: Backlund’s scoring when playing top line minutes (>18, avg 20.5) over the last two years:

    35 games, 14 goals, 14 assists projecting over a full season to 33 G, 33A. We keep saying, he’s very good, but he’s no top line center, and it would be hard for me to believe that he really is, but he looks like a totally different player since the lockout when he’s going.

    If he can keep up this pace over the remainder of the season, I think it may be prudent to give credit where it’s due. He could be a legitimate top line player in this league.

      • EugeneV

        So then; not a 1C.

        Yeah, he’s our top line C at the moment, but the team is nowhere.

        A team with Backlund (or similar)as their 1C can’t win the Cup..

        If our team gets to the point where Backlund is our 3C on merit then I will be happy as we should be contenders at that point.

  • Lordmork

    Good read thx. Really enjoy the stats analysis you employ I’ve learned a lot from it. And I’ve learned some Greek today; “deus ex machina”!

    Read that The Flames were scouting the Sabers the other week, maybe they are interested in Miller? That would be cool.

    • Bean-counting cowboy

      1. That’s Latin, not Greek

      2. The Flames ARE NOT in a position to give the Sabres what they’ll be looking for in exchange for Miller. It would be like Poirier and a 1st, and that’s me being optimistic.

      Also, he’ll be retired by the time they’re competitive again. Do. Not. Want.

      • Bean-counting cowboy

        deus ex machina is a calque from Greek ἀπὸ μηχανῆς θεός (apò mēkhanḗs theós), meaning “god from the machine”

        Its all Greek to me.

  • Lordmork

    Backlund’s ascension can be summed up in one word: confidence!

    I remember watching him play a couple seasons ago and he would always take short shifts (not bad but I would notice considerably shorter than his wingers) and it would usually occur after he would dump the puck in when he should have carried it in and made a play.

    Brent Sutter had him too scared to take chances and his offensive output struggled due to it.

    It has taken him a lockout a couple personal coaches and essentially one season under Hartley to break this trend.

    I always saw potential in him but I it was things like this that I noticed in his game that was holding him back.

    I’m excited to see how far he can climb. I always envisioned him as our 2nd line center and I think that is attainable..

    Keep working hard Backs!!

    • SmellOfVictory

      nope. has nothing to do with it. he’s playing the exact same minutes as he was last year and is producing the same kind of results. the difference is that he’s not getting 4% unlucky with his shots now.

      • supra steve

        He is going into areas and competing where most goals are scored rather than shooting from the perimeter as witnessed by where he scored both his goals from on Saturday.

          • seve927

            Come on Justin. You say you played competitive hockey. I hope you haven’t bought into a shot is a shot propaganda. By the eye test, Backlund is hitting those dirty areas and being rewarded. He was avoiding those areas even 6 weeks ago. Settling for the outside shot and moving away from scoring areas as the shot was coming rather than towards that area that has been proven to be the prime scoring area. As you know, that is often the sign of a player who is struggling with confidence, is a step slow or who isn’t committed to getting to those areas. I think it was confidence in his case as I have always liked him as a player. He is now going to the Grease Pan and being rewarded and I hope he continues to play like this.Trying to say my point is irrelevant because I don’t subscribe to your advanced stats is pretty narrow minded don’t you think?

      • Parallex

        His quality of shots and the authority in which he releases them is much more dynamic this season.

        If you can’t see a mental switch in his head has finally turned on then I guess keep attributing it to better luck, but I don’t see it that way.

        This is a reason why I cannot tolerate the trade Sven talk because I think the same issues that face him faced Backlund. They are both Euros, they both are smaller builds, they have great skill but need(ed) time to adjust.

        Backlund has worked hard on this game and a big part is being confident in his abilities.

        Not everything can be deduced into a calculation or attributed to an uncontrollable factor such as luck.

        A lot of various factors contribute to success at an individual, team and organizational level.

        Luck is one of them…but not the only one that comes into play when analyzing a player and his contributions according to one paradigm.

  • Bean-counting cowboy

    I respect advanced stats in that they can be useful if applied and understood under the proper pretences.

    But the one thing that makes me always question its legitimacy is how it fails to account for unquanitifiable factors.

    Well I guess it gets refered to as bounces and/or luck, or “puck luck” in hockey stats terms.

    But it doesn’t get fully recognized when considering that stats..

    I’m paraphrasing but Keenan would always say ‘there are never excuses for losing but there are usually reasons.’

    Things like confindence, lack of sleep ect has an affect on individual players and it affects the numbers.

    I also find it humerous that Harltey isn’t getting any credit for Backlund’s resurgance and all his early coaching decisions are still being deemed questionable.

    This is a multi-million dollar hockey team there are alot of things going on that we don’t always understand.

    Playing MacDonald and then Berra over Ramo and Colborne over Backlund ect are decisions that are made with alot of thought going into them.

    And honestly anyone who thinks that Backlund and Ramo would be thriving right now if they weren’t challenged by Hartley at the start of the year don’t understand professional sports.

    Is there any surprise goalies play better when they have a good backup behind them, or that players with expiring contracts play better?

    Motivation is the key, I know they are pros and are/should be motivated already. But having that extra kick in the pants goes along way and things like that get missed when considering advanced stats and the like.

  • seve927

    @ Kent Willson,

    Kent, your article is very timely given the trade winds that were blowing strong around Backlund a couple months ago when he was benched.

    I’m interested to know your view and others at Flamesnation.ca think if it would be wise (if the opportunity suddenly arose) to trade Backlund for another young centre of a comparable age around the league, who has also struggled, has had ups and downs this and last year and has comparable point totals so far this year and has 1st/2nd line centre potential. Basically a straight up hockey trade while Backlund’s star is now burning brighter.

    A few names that pop up in my mind include (a) Sean Couturier at 25 points in the year to date, (b) Colin Wilson at 24 points, © Adam Henrique at 26 points, (d) Cody Hodgson at 29 points, (e) Derick Brassard at 30 points. Although I know this is just a pipe dream, I also wonder what you would think of trying to use Backlund in a package to get Mikael Granlund so he can be reunited with his brother down the road. You could also throw Lars Eller into the mix.

    • Parallex

      So your wonderng if it would be wise to trade Backlund for a player like Backlund? That seems like a strange transaction since you’re basically trading what you have for what you want which is the same as what you’re trading to get it. Pointless really.

      In regards to the specific names you mentioned… I would do the trade for Couturier but I’d pass on all the rest.

      • supra steve

        Interesting. The reason I asked is because 2-3 months ago, I recall reading that most thought Backlund would get little in return (eg 4th round pick like Colburne) and I am sure most fans would have been happy to get any of those players I mentioned (at least I would). Now Backlund has turned into an untouchable in the eyes of most Flames fans.

        • supra steve

          The argument was perception vs reality. Perception of Backlund was low. People were against trading him because the Flames wouldn’t get anything close to equal value.

          Another reason to be against trading Backlund would be that the Flames need more players like him, not less.

  • seve927

    Did a little more digging on Backlund’s ice time. In games he’s played fewer than 14:30, his Corsi has been 44.8 (not including the game he got hurt last year), and about 49.5 when he’s played more. Or to look at it another way, when he’s been playing better, he’s gotten more icetime. I just don’t really see how he has been mistreated by Hartley.

    • Parallex

      You’re not providing context with that statement. Is that raw Corsi or relCorsi? is that all situations or 5v5? How were the people who usurped his spot playing by the same measures? Who was he playing with when he got the fewer then 14:30? I’m betting it was largely AHL tweeners and facepunchers… in which case his lower corsi was just as likely an effect of the reduced icetime (as opposed to the cause).

      I mean it’s hard to produce positive outshooting results when the entire team is struggling, when you’re saddled with inferior cohorts, and when you’re playing down a man.

      If I recall correctly the idea that he was being “mistreated by Hartley” was bourne out of the conclusion that he was playing better then the people he was being replaced with, that other people playing worse were not treated similerly, and that the resultant action was counter to the rational that he (Hartley) provide to the media.

      It’s all water under the bridge now… but it looked like poor roster management at the time and still looks like poor roster management in retrospect.

      • supra steve

        “but it looked like poor roster management at the time and still looks like poor roster management in retrospect.”

        Unless you entertain the notion that Hartley MAY have spurred Backlund into improving his performance. If you can’t for a second consider that to be a possibility, then you are not being entirely fair in your assesment of Hartley.

        I can’t definatively say that Hartley has helped Backs, but I see that his play seems to have achieved a new level since the benchings. Could be just coincidence, or could be that Backs took the benchings as a challenge to improve his play, and met that challenge.

        • Parallex

          You can only entertain that notion if you inheriently believe the underlaying premise (that his performance was somehow poor). I don’t now (and didn’t then) believe that underlaying premise to be the case and thus still consider it to have been poor roster management… someone said it earlier “Correlation is not causation”.

          • supra steve

            No, that is just not true. I never said Backund had been playing poorly, and I couldn’t tell you if Hartley ever did either.

            The question is, is he playing better since he sat?

            If you agree that he is, and you can’t fathom the possibility that the sitting MAY have had something to do with it, then you are just not being honest.

            I believe that he is playing better since he sat. He is certainly getting more positive attention, and not just on this site. So I say that the benchings probably didn’t hurt his progress as a player, and it may have helped his progress, at least in the short term.

          • Parallex

            C’mon that can’t be the bar to set at “you are just not being honest”.

            “May” it have had something to do with it? Sure… “May” it have had something to do with him discovering that he likes, I duuno, burrito’s from taco time? Sure… “May” a butterfly flapping it’s wings in Beijing, ala Jurrasic Park Chaos Theory have had something to do with it? Sure… “May” 1,000,000,000 other things have had something to do with it? Sure… “may” it have had absolutely nothing to do with it? Sure… “May” it have actually done harm and Backs would be significantly better today had he not done it? Sure. That (“May”) is such a tiny bar to set.

            When it comes right down to it I think Backlund was playing very good then and I think he’s playing very good now. I think Hartley was mismanaging his roster then and properly (minus the excess goons) managing it now. That’s about the extent of credit that I feel comfortable assigning to him… that he’s (Hartley) making less mistakes (and by extention doing a better job) at present then in the recent past.

          • supra steve

            Hey, you are the one that brought up the “Correlation is not causation” quote, and now I’m left wondering if you know what it means.

            I have conceded that I don’t KNOW exactly why Backs seems to be more productive/noticable now, then he was early in the season. He IS more productive offensively and is certainly getting some media attention that I haven’t seen about him in the past. Could be increased ice due to injuries, could be that the A on his jersey has helped too. Could be any of many factors alone or in combination (though probably not burritos, that’s just silly).

            While correlation does not prove causation, it certainly doesn’t disprove it either.

            Hartley obviously saw Backs early results/efforts as less then he was capable of giving to the team. To refuse to admit that Hartley’s actions may have had a positive influence on Backlund’s progression (more than burritos had to do with it), that is just not honest, or maybe the more appropriate word is reasonable.

          • supra steve

            Backlund would not have scored a goal like he did in ot 6 weeks ago because he wasn’t going to those dirty scoring areas. Your shooting percentage will go up from that area too.

          • SmellOfVictory

            “The question is, is he playing better since he sat?”

            nope. he’s just been having league-average luck. last year, he did not have any luck, and people crucified him for it.

        • SmellOfVictory

          His play improved since the benchings, and also since injuries pushed him back into more ice time. I don’t think it’s worthwhile to even discuss the benchings, because there are other factors that are equally good candidates, if not better, for reasons his play has improved.

      • seve927

        Yeah, the point was really just ‘another way to look at it’. He wasn’t limiting ice time of an NHL superstar. He was limiting ice time of a demonstrated capable player in whom he would presumably have seen greater potential. He had really quite pedestrian numbers, and at his age, it really is time to begin to achieve his potential.

        So you sacrifice a small amount of ice time for a short period of time for one of your potential cornerstones to the rebuild if he can add some offense to his game. You get exactly the result everyone wants, but you want to claim ‘poor roster management’? I just don’t see why you can’t point to some kind of failure as evidence of poor coaching. I guess there has been so little that if you just decided to hate Bob Hartley you have to come up with a reason. He did ruin Shayne O’Brien I guess.

  • supra steve

    Love the article Kent, Backlund has been one of the great stories this year. Giordiano is the other one. He has a nine game point streak, i swear he is better this year than when we had JBo and Iglina. Though maybe you can shed some light on this.


  • SmellOfVictory

    Sitting him out was the first warning shot. When he saw Colborne leap frog him and he was on the fourth line that shot was more then a warning. Good news is that with a couple of injuries he moved back up and responded positively. Then given the “A” on his jersey gave him even more positive movement.

    He is a man now and a good top centreman with the other “C”‘s flowing through his veins.

  • beloch

    Just to try to put a few numbers out there…

    Let’s take a look at Backlunds shots and point production pre and post epiphany (Nov. 30th).

    Pre-Epiphany: (23 game sample)
    Average TOI/game: 14:36
    0.360 shots/60 minutes of play
    0.074 points/60 minutes of play
    Post-Epiphany: (31 game sample)
    Avarage TOI/game: 19:52
    0.801 shots/60 minutes of play
    0.214 points/60 minutes of play

    Yowza! That is not subtle. Backs, besides playing more minutes, is putting up more than twice as many shots per minute of play. He’s also getting three times as many points per minute of play! His quality of team-mates did go up, but so did his QoC. Is Backlund’s epiphany the real deal? Let’s compare this season to last season.

    2012/2013: (32 game sample)
    Average TOI/game: 15:07
    0.693 shots/60 minutes of play
    0.126 points/60 minutes of play

    Taking last season into consideration, Backlund was actually in a bit of a slump at the start of this season. He was getting less TOI and taking fewer shots per minute on the ice (To be fair, this might easily have been caused by the linemates he was stuck with). However, he’s taken a clear step forward in shot-generation post-epiphany, and his point production has sky-rocketed.

    To me, these numbers suggest Backlund really did have a meaningful epiphany. He’s generating more shots and his shots appear to be more dangerous than before. I might have to take a look at his scoring chances to really nail this down… Is there someplace where all the Flames scoring chances have been aggregated so I don’t have to crawl through a hundred game day posts (many of which will likely be missing scoring chance data)?

  • loudogYYC

    I’ve met Backs a few times, he’s a shy and polite kinda kid. Great person to have on your team but it takes people like that a while to come out of their shell.

    I remember last year during the lockout when he was tearing it up in Sweden someone asked him what the difference was, he said he felt like before he was respecting his opponents too much. You can tell that now he doesn’t give a crap, he’ll play anyone as hard as he can.

    To say his new found confidence and poise have nothing to do with his turnaround is very shortsighted. Stats and charts can explain almost everything except the human mind.