The Clock Is Ticking For Mikael Backlund

For the first month of the season, many around the Calgary Flames probably had a similar thought. While traditional possession giants T.J. Brodie and Mark Giordano continued their strong Corsi work unabated as the new season began – and Paul Byron began to prove that his strong work when he was healthy late last season probably was an indicator of future work – one of the usual suspects was conspicuous by his absence.

The common thought? “What the heck is up with Mikael Backlund?”

Trying to shake off an abdominal injury during the pre-season, Backlund was handled strategically throughout the first bit of the regular season. Easier zone starts (Stajan was buried in the defensive zone). Easier competition (Monahan ate the tough minutes). More high ground that he was used to traditionally. Maintenance days off the practice ice as often as necessary to keep him fresh as he worked through the injury.

But Plan A didn’t work, so now Plan B – parking him on the injured reserve for a while to see if he recovers – is being implemented. (And hopefully they don’t have to resort to the theoretical Plan C – surgery – as that would cost #11 even more game time.)

It’s the latest in a series of injuries for Backlund that have limited his playing time, interrupted his seasons and halted his organizational momentum since he became a full-time NHLer three years ago.

  • 2011-12: played 41 of 82 games (missed time due to a broken finger in training camp and an arm injury mid-season)
  • 2012-13: played 32 of 48 games (missed time due to a knee injury and a broken foot, which also cost him time at the World Championship)
  • 2013-14: played 76 of 82 games (missed time due to a hand injury)

It’s never the same thing, but it’s always something.

And that’s a factor that’s dogged Backlund throughout his pro career. After his entry-level deal, he’d established himself as a strong two-way player and a guy that could be relied upon for the tough minutes and (especially more recently) some key goals.

So why have his post-entry-level contracts been a 1-year/$725,000 deal and a 2-year/$1.5 million deal?

Because the team is probably looking at his numbers and thinking two things.

  1. “Sample size! He needs to do it for a full season or two for us to believe this is his actual level of play.”

  2. “We have to keep some cap space handy to sign or acquire a replacement for him down the stretch when he inevitably gets injured.”

What worries me is the second party, because nowadays the Calgary Flames actually have some internal center depth. It’s no longer just Backlund and the Roman Cervenkas and converted wingers of the world.

Nope.

Sean Monahan is an NHL center and is improving. Matt Stajan is the de facto elder statesman of the group, and his contract probably sees him move down the depth chart during his tenure, but he’s a nice safety valve for the young kids. Sam Bennett is probably in the NHL next season – and may have been in the NHL as we speak if not for his bum shoulder. Markus Granlund is a guy pushing for an NHL job. And Bill Arnold, Corban Knight and utility man Max Reinhart are all pressing for jobs.

What do these names (other than Stajan) have in common? They’re all younger than Backlund. They’re all going to be on either their entry-level or bridge deals in the next few years (and will all probably be about as cheap as Backlund cap-wise).

And if one or two of them can establish themselves as some combination of (a) as useful as Backlund to the coaches or (b) healthier than Backlund, they may find themselves supplanting Backlund in short order.

I like Mikael Backlund. He’s a good interview. He does a lot of community work and clearly loves this city and being a Calgary Flame. And he’s a very good hockey player when he’s healthy enough to string some games together and build up his confidence.

But for a rebuilding team, players aren’t people – they’re assets. And to progress through a rebuild, you need reliable assets that you can build around. And if you have an asset that’s unavailable to you for a third or even a half of every season, that’s not an asset you can really carry forward long-term.

I hope Mikael Backlund licks this injury quickly and can return to the Flames line-up at 100%. As a pending restricted free agent – and somebody his general manager is likely still evaluating as an asset – his job may very well depend on it.

  • Matty Franchise Jr

    As this team takes shape and we truly see where players slot in(relatively early in the season) I Hope the work ethic and the identity theyve carved out holds true. Will be important for this team if they’re still challenging for a playoff spot down the road and even into the future. Have to give some props to Hartley in helping to create that culture, but still don’t like some of the line combos he uses sometimes.

  • Matty Franchise Jr

    Lots of players go through years of injuries and then years of health or vice cersa. It’s a mistake to label a very good player ‘injury prone’ and move him because of that.

    One big thing missing in the article is Backlund’s age. The Flames still have a dearth of players in the 25-29 age range. Backlund fits that. He’s just entering his prime now and the Flames will require players like that for a few more years.

    • ChinookArchYYC

      Good points and you can be sure his agent will argue those to BT. On the other hand, Pike’s points will definitely part of the Flames arguments for a cheap contract.

      In the end, it would be crazy for the Flames to not extend Backlund. He is currently still their best option at centre, and the best 2-way forward on the team. Plus, it’s very apparent the Hartley has a high degree of trust in Backlund.

      I hope Backlund and the Flames get a fair deal done and soon. A good long deal for Backlund and a cap-freindly deal for the Flames.

    • mk

      YES! I will try to dig it up, but I remember reading somewhere an analysis of historical injury data: the numbers suggest that players who have multiple un-related injuries are just as likely to have any injury as players who play many complete seasons.

      The ‘injury-prone’ label is more accurate when applied to players who consistently have the same injury: concussions (‘upper body injuries…’), shoulder problems, knee issues, etc. Backlund is not in this category.

      • piscera.infada

        The ‘injury-prone’ label is more accurate when applied to players who consistently have the same injury: concussions (‘upper body injuries…’), shoulder problems, knee issues, etc. Backlund is not in this category.

        That’s very often the overlooked fact in the discussion of who’s “injury-prone”. Generally, shoulder, knee, groin, head, and back injuries are the ones that flair up and wear-down over time. The majority of “injury-prone” players are just guys who have bad luck. On the other hand, of course, there are players who play a style of game that results in more injuries, but that doesn’t really apply to Backlund.

  • playastation

    Don’t our GM’s have this thing about having people in certain age ranges and something with that having to do with team builds and all that?

    And… this has something to do with Backlund staying here.

    I think.

    • Cool Story, Brodie!!!

      Backlund is only 25! He will be with the Flames for at least 5 years more and is a valuable asset even if he misses the entire season.
      Matt Stajan could be expendable at next years trade deadline, assuming the ‘prospects’ beome NHL ready.

  • Bean-counting cowboy

    I see him as our 3rd line shut-down center throughout and beyond the rebuild. Monahan or Bennett will be the 1, 2 punch. Stajan will be a good soldier and play fourth line centre minutes until his contract expires. Any of Granlund, Reinhart or even Bennett would be good on the wing if needs be.

    • BurningSensation

      I think this hits it on the head.

      Backlund’s greatest attribute is his ability to push the river back against the other teams top lines. He doesn’t need to score a ton for us if he can check the elite and hold his own.

      That leaves Monahan (likely our future #2) and Bennett (our likely #1) to do all the heavy lifting offensively.

      Stajan runs the 4th line, and guys like Jooris, Knight, Reinhart, and Granlund are taught to play on the wing.

      San Jose has an entire forward corps of converted Cs (Marleau, Couture, Pavelski, Hertl, etc., all C’s converted to being able to play on the wing).

      Multiple guys on each line who can take face-offs, or be moved around as necessary.

  • mk

    One of the problems some teams get into is that they think a player who isn’t the best doesn’t give them value. If you can sign a player to a good value contract and have them shifted down the depth chart by other players – bonus. You have just created depth on your team.

    Talent doesn’t just drop from the sky – elite teams have strong top players AND great depth. Look at Chicago after their first cup: the depth disappeared and they had to rebuild it. Backlund is young enough, should be cheap enough, and plays a valuable role on the team that resigning him should be a no-brainer.

    • piscera.infada

      I couldn’t agree more. He’s a player that you could conceivably sign to a very team-friendly (and player-friendly) deal, with term. He’s going to help you no matter where he plays in the line-up. Moreover, with a cap-friendly deal with term, if the Flames centre-depth does in fact emerge as elite (the Arnolds, Granlunds, Knights, etc.), then you are able to trade Backlund at that point for a very good return.

      All in all, too early to be discussing trading Backlund instead of extending him.

      • Johnny Goooooooaldreau

        Even though he is a RFA Treliving will make his decision based on what Backlund wants moving forward. If he wants to be signed to a short term taking him to UFA then he will be out of here this year or next, if he will take a reasonable hit (for a 3rd liner) over a longer term taking him to age 30 (so 5+ years) then he will get resigned all of course without any NTC or NMC’s.

      • Kevin R

        I am in the same camp. This will probably get a rock star extension next July as we have a large enough sample size on Backs to know what we are resigning. If this leads us to a 3 year 9.0mill deal come summer, what a steal. For one of our young up & comers to dislodge Backs, that will require an impressive performance in my eyes. Who wouldn’t want that on your team at a decent price. Sure hope he starts to get better luck when it comes to playing healthy. He is not a reckless player like a Taylor Hall style of play, not that I am comparing the players, just the playing style.

  • Skuehler

    Isn’t it easier to convert a centre to wing than the opposite? Have a wealth of decent centres is a huge org asset. Sign him soon on the cheap. In three + years he could be our Stajan 2.0.

    I totally see Granlund earning himself a spot very soon, within 12 months.
    Keep grooming these centres and use the depth to cover injuries or trade a vet or prospect for some help on D.

    Signing Backllund soon makes sense.

  • Bean-counting cowboy

    A few things from this article:

    Really don’t know where the Backlund needs to string a few good games together to get confidence narrative comes from.

    I don’t think Sam Bennet would be with this team right now or is at all a lock to be in the NHL next season.

    I do understand the thinking behind the article though besides that one note. In my opinion, even with the injury concerns, there’s still a ton of value in re-signing Backlund. I don’t believe the NHL is at a place now where advanced statistics are valued enough to really give Backlund the money he likely deserves. He still could provide the Flames with one of the best “value” contracts in the league if healthy. It’s worth re-signing him anyways because I can’t see it costing the Flames that much. That being sad, you did do an excellent job at talking about the potential mindsets of Flames management.