The Calgary Flames with and without Mikael Backlund

People have a tendency to get distracted and/or focused on shiny new toys. This can lead to older, less shiny toys being disregarded, cast away as “not as awesome” or something else silly, even though they’re still friggin’ great toys.

In this scenario, Sean Monahan and Sam Bennett are shiny new toys. The pair of extremely high draft picks and extremely young centres are expected to one day develop into elite talent and lead the Flames to the promised land.

Mikael Backlund is the less shiny toy, and not rightfully so. He’s been around so long and never scored enough points to people’s liking, so some find it easy to dismiss him (like that time Markus Granlund got nine points in 10 games, a thing that did not happen again).

They’re wrong. Backlund is crucial to the Flames’ success. With the team growing and young, high end talent stepping in, he’s more important than ever.

No, he’s not scoring as much as we’d like

It would be great if everyone stepped into the NHL an incredible scorer. It’d also be good if everyone developed a clear scoring touch as their careers progress. 

This never quite happened with Backlund, or at least, not to the extent people were hoping. A team devoid of youth and prospects, Backlund was one of the lone draft choices to actually make the Flames. Sure, he was relegated to the fourth line a lot, but at least he was there. And by virtue of being a former first round pick on an NHL team, he was supposed to score.

Unfortunately, due to various ailments – Backlund has yet to play a full NHL season – and other transgressions, the centre has yet to put up eye popping numbers. He’s no Johnny Gaudreau, whose incredible point production was absolutely key to his Calder nomination.

This does, however, ignore the fact that Backlund has been a half-a-point-per-game player for the past three seasons.

Season Points Points per game
2013 16 .50
2013-14 39 .51
2014-15 27 .52

He scores. He isn’t around enough to put up more points, but he’s still posting decent numbers when he is.

No, he’s not Monahan or Bennett

Big things are expected out of the Flames’ younger centres. Two products of the OHL, Monahan and Bennett put up great offensive numbers in their draft years: 78 points in 58 games for Monahan, and 91 points in 57 for Bennett.

Backlund’s draft year saw him score 13 points over 37 games in Sweden: completely different circumstances compared to Canadian junior hockey, and definitely not as impressive.

To make things more relatable, we can look at everyone’s draft+1 years. Backlund scored 30 points over 28 games with the Kelowna Rockets (in addition to playing in Sweden, and his one-game NHL debut); Monahan scored 34 points over 75 games with the Flames; and Bennett, recovering from surgery most of the season, was eventually unleashed to wreck havoc on the OHL with 24 points over 11 games.

So no, Backlund doesn’t really compare offensively.

Monahan’s growth in his sophomore season and Bennett’s general awesomeness in the playoffs have a lot of people excited, and for good reason. Backlund, meanwhile, only scored a goal and an assist in the playoffs, even though one could argue he was the Flames’ best forward.

Points are important. They aren’t everything.

Without Backlund in 2014-15

Backlund missed training camp with an abdominal strain, and was pretty clearly affected by it when he returned to action to start the season. The Flames finally put him on the shelf after 11 unproductive games.

They spent 29 games without him, and did manage to post a 16-12-1 record over that time. 

Via War on Ice, here’s what the Flames centres looked like over those 29 games:

woutbacklund

There, Sean Monahan and Matt Stajan are pretty much holding the fort down: Monahan in terms of quality of competition, Stajan in terms of zone starts. Stajan, in particular, was the best-performing centre on the Flames at this time, while Monahan was still finding his footing as he started to develop into a top six centre. 

Markus Granlund, meanwhile, was heavily sheltered and not doing so hot. Josh Jooris was reasonably sheltered as well, and showed he could handle what he was given. Joe Colborne was not doing well, but he was still  faring better than Granlund, and at that point, Paul Byron could probably have stood to have more trust put in him. Lance Bouma was not handling his lack of offensive zone starts well at all.

When Backlund returned to health, things changed, and for the better.

With Backlund in 2015

Backlund returned to action against the Detroit Red Wings in early January, scoring a goal and assist along the way. He played the second half of the season injury-free, and actually scored 23 points over 42 games: .55 points per game, a little better than what he was used to.

His return was bigger than that, though. With another high level NHL centre back in the lineup, Bob Hartley was finally able to do something he wasn’t previously: put Monahan in between Johnny Gaudreau and Jiri Hudler.

Gaudreau and Hudler had sheltered offensive zone starts all season long, creating optimal circumstances for Gaudreau in his rookie year. Due to all of the centre injuries, for a time, Monahan was the most veteran centre on the Flames roster, and as a result, he had to take defensive zone starts. Monahan and Gaudreau couldn’t really play together without the team suffering in some way: either offensively as Gaudreau would lose his sheltered position, or defensively as a less equipped player would have had to start more frequently in his own end.

With Backlund’s return, that was no longer an issue; a perfectly capable centre was right there to take the less-than-favourable zone starts and run with them.

wbacklund

There’s Backlund, taking defensive zone starts while playing relatively tough competition, and putting up better possession numbers than Monahan – now sheltered – all the while.

Nobody else could have handled it. Stajan fell off from his earlier performance. Jooris, Colborne, and Granlund still required sheltering. Shore was completely new to the team, and more defensive zone starts brought Byron’s possession numbers down. Bouma’s actually improved, though.

This is what Backlund did

Bouma went from 40.68% CF in easier circumstances to 42.90% with increased defensive zone starts and facing off against harder competition. He still didn’t post great numbers, but his numbers went up right around the time Backlund became his centre.

Without Backlund, Monahan scored nine 5v5 even strength points over 29 games, good for a .31 point per game pace. His ZSO rel was -8.51%. With Backlund, Monahan scored 20 points over 41 games – .49 points per game – aided by his ZSO rel of +7.39%.

Colborne, Jooris, and Granlund’s offensive zone starts shot up, and Colborne and Jooris’ possession numbers along with them (Granlund’s did not, but by that point in the season he was likely overused due to injuries, and shouldn’t have played as many NHL games as he ended up having to). 

Backlund’s mere presence gave all of the young centres on the team easier circumstances with which to work. In most cases, this resulted in better performances. Possession stats went up. Monahan’s scoring increased dramatically.

And Backlund didn’t only give them easier circumstances to work with; he thrived in some of the most difficult minutes the Flames had to offer. He wasn’t sacrificial fodder. He was someone the team could actually rely on.

Sam Bennett is probably going to be a great, high-scoring player. A 19-year-old Bennett is not going to be able to do what Backlund did last year. A sophomore Monahan wasn’t as good. 

And this is what Backlund has been doing his entire career. (The 2014-15 season was the first time he was ever a negative possession player, but it was an incredibly bad possession team, and there were no regulars able to break even. It wasn’t entirely on him.)

If this team wants success, it needs Backlund

Let’s wrap up with a simple WOWY chart. Ten skaters spent at least 100 5v5 even strength minutes with Backlund over this past season:

backlundwowys

Outside of Kris Russell and Dennis Wideman, players’ possession went up when they spent time with Backlund.

Outside of Mark Giordano and Johnny Gaudreau, Backlund maintained greater possession when separated with a player.

And then there’s Backlund with Giordano.

Mikael Backlund is a crucial part of the Flames. He not only allows more vulnerable teammates to take easier minutes, but when he actually plays with them, he has an overall positive impact on their performance. And he does all this while putting up at least half a point per game; and those numbers are going up, too.

He’s the ultimate defensive package with offensive upside, and performs a role nobody else on the Flames is capable of.

Monahan and Bennett will, in all likelihood, be very, very good players, and will probably be better than Backlund one day.

In the meantime, Backlund is better than them, and the Flames need him.

  • wot96

    Hey, I like Mickis a lot but do they need him or a solid number 3 defender more? Flames have a number of good, or at least promising, young defensive centres plus Moneyhands and Sam. I think they sign him to a solid deal and if they can make a move for a solid number three defender, they do it.

    And yes GWW, I do agree with your idea on this…not the target necessarily.

    • Bean-counting cowboy

      I think we need Backlund more. We have a glut of young forwards hitting the roster that benefit from the shelter Backlund can provide.

      We have two strong possession players on D in Gio and Backlund with less young defenders hitting the roster requiring shelter.

      In other words, we need more possession monster forwards than we need on D right now.

      I think we need to address the #3 d-man via trade or free agency (with Backlund not being involved in the trade). To move him would be moving backwards.

      • MWflames

        Totally agree.

        Backlund is needed for 3 years minimum. Other promising young forwards can function as trade bait. Not sure where the assumption came from to assume Backlund is the trade bait to entice a #3 Dman.

        Backlund is likely being planned to slot in to the 3C role after Bennett gets experience this coming year. Backlund’s age (25) is appealing too, as he is the oldest of the new core group being developed.

        The evolving centre depth chart over the next couple years (given current known players in the system) likely looks something like this:

        2015-16 Monahan, Backlund, Bennett, Stajan/Shore2016-17 Monahan, Bennett, Backlund, Shore/Stajan/Jankowski2017-18 Monahan, Bennett, Backlund, Jankowski

        In three years time Edmonton will again be fighting with Calgary, both being a western division contender while current top teams re-tool.

        In 2017-18 EDM’s centre depth chart will likely look something like McDavid, Nugent-Hopkins, Draisaitl, Yakimov.

        Both teams will have formidable centre depth, likely amongst the best in the league, and the Battle of Alberta will truly be a battle again!!

        • T&A4Flames

          I think you’re missing Arnold in there. I believe he will hit the NHL well before Janko. In fact, Arnold may prove to be the one that eventually allows us to move Backlund. Janko will spend at least a year in the minors.

    • SmellOfVictory

      They need him at least equally as much as a #3 defender. There are tons of assets they could trade for a defender who are less important to the team than Backlund is.

      edit: Also, Petry, Green, and Ehrhoff are all guys who would do a lot to improve the Flames’ defensive depth and could act as anchors for the 2nd pairing, so they have some UFA options.

        • T&A4Flames

          I think Backlund has the ability to get us the #3 Dman in a package but I do like the fact that you go with what you know & we know what Backlund can do. So Backlund is young enough to be slotted in long term. Stajan is signed for long enough that we know what we have on the 4th line. Backs & Stajan can move up lines in times of injuries & need. So….would it not make since to go to a team like Arizona & target Gormerly or a team like New Jersey & target a Gelinas or Larsson & offer up Shore or Granlund & maybe few ends or a 2nd & a 3rd for one of these young D. Gotta give to get & we need a 22-23 year old blue chip blue liner.

          • supra steve

            I’m not saying that they SHOULD move Backlund for a D-man, but I do believe that he is the kind of “piece” that another club may consider in such a trade. Would another team consider Granlund or Shore plus a 2nd & 3rd for a ready for the NHL young D that can become a second pair anchor? I just don’t think that’s enough.

    • beloch

      A #3D would be on the ice more and could make a bigger impact than a #3C, plus the Flames have a few guys who might develop into fine centres, although probably not as good at driving possession as Backlund is.

      That being said, putting a slightly smaller hole in the bottom of your boat to fix another hole still leaves you with a hole in the bottom of your boat. The Flames have enough assets that Backlund should not be traded to get that #3D. With both Backlund and a good #3D the Flames might start driving possession in the right direction.

      • MWflames

        The general consensus is that while russell and wideman played an admirable season, both are probably #4’s. They both aren’t quite good enough defensively to effectively handle top 4 ES minutes without having a #3. They are close, but not quite there.

        A #3 would allow this team to be effective right through the line-up and bolster the defensive depth when injuries occur.

        Gio/Brodie
        Russell/(Blank)
        Schlemko/Wideman
        Engelland/(Prospect)

        As I said in another thread though. We are still building, there is no shame in maintaining status quo for another year.

        Also, this is not the time to trade Backlund. 4 years @4M?? Sure. Play him a year or two, and allow the youth to develop and eventually take over. If you keep him around as your #3, that’s a great #3. If a guy like Arnold allows you to trade him in a year or 2, excellent.

        The so called ‘Centre Depth’ people believe the flames have is a whole lot worse without Backlund. Maybe this time next year we will have more NHL options, but at this time I believe we only have 4 NHL centre & a guy I much prefer on the wing, Jooris. Next year will be the year that shore/granlund/Arnold move to start pushing guys out. None of them have done that yet. I believe you trade when you have excess not in the anticipation of excess.

  • wot96

    I hear you but my thinking is that number three defender makes it a lot easier for the forwards to drive play the right way, especially as some of the younger forwards like Monahan, Gaudreau and Bennett get better, or at least more experienced.

  • Greg

    Bouma’s numbers are worse then I realized. Would like to see his fenwick to see if it looks better at least with all the blocked shots. Still like him and want to see an extension, but I really hope we don’t overpay based on his inflated point totals. 2x$2.5M is ok but longer or more dollars would make me cringe.

  • redhot1

    And man, would getting Backlund a decent possession driving winger help his game. I really liked the chemistry he showed with Poirier FWIW. Poirier / Backlund / Shore anyone?

  • Toofun

    Calgary is all of a sudden “long” young skilled forward prospects and very short on defensive talent.

    With few realistic trade options, the focus shifts to Backlund as the best trade bait available to the club.

    Personnaly, I would sign him, keep him and work with him. Does anyone really think that Backlund’s best year in the NHL is past and that its all downhill from here?

    A year ago we found “Corsi Backlund”. The light went on and he became the closest thing Calgary has to a possession beast.

    This year, we saw a very tiny flash of “goal scoring Backlund” and “Truculent Backlund”. Ok, not enough of either, but certainly enough to show that this guy has the raw skill to do it!

    Can he skate, shoot, hit, defend, attack and be a team player. Yes, above average for all.
    Sign him.

  • MontanaMan

    Move him for a #3 defenceman as soon as possible. Backlund is a decent #3 centreman but the Flames need to address their defence needs immediately and Backlund’s the odd man out. The team needs to address their weaknesses and not worry about a dime a dozen 3rd line centre. Let Granlund or better yet Jooris work their way into the position and upgrade the defence at the same time.

    Sign Petry as a free agent and trade Backlund and you instantly have a decent 3/4 defence tandem.

    • Nick24

      Decent? Backlund is an elite middle-six forward. If guys like Backlund were going for a dime a dozen, every team would have one. The solution to our hole in the D-core is not to make another hole up the middle. No one else on this team can do what he does, and if you think that Jooris or Granlund would be sufficient replacements you’d be fooling yourself.

      • Burnward

        Elite is a very long stretch. He’s a good player.

        I’d keep him around, certainly…but if he was part of a package to get a true elite top six forward I’d be fine with that.

        • T&A4Flames

          If you’re talking about a top 6 winger for Backlund, I’ll keep the C, thank you. Backs is that C that allows the scoring forwards to get the best chance at doing what they need to do. And, he may just pot a few of his own while taking on the best lines. Wingers…..are a dime a dozen. Sure maybe not the ones that score at the rate of an Ovechkin or Kessel, but wingers are the easiest pieces to find via FA, trade or draft. In a couple of years maybe you have developed another possession monster or 2 but for now, Backs is needed to help allow development time for the kids.

      • MontanaMan

        Elite? You are kidding right? He may be elite to Flames fanatics but on the open market he is far from it. We’ll see what happens leading up to the draft but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him go. The Flames desperately need a 3/4 pairing and you’re not going to get them trading junk. My hope is that Backlund can fetch the Flames a decent player.

  • RKD

    Bennett is not yet ready to jump into a #2C role right away, this kid is 18 years old! Backlund gets a bad rap because he was a first round pick and so expectations for a 1st overall pick are naturally higher. He can chip in offensively, but that’s not his game. He is a defensive center and that’s why he is deployed out there. If he could play a whole 82 game season I think the point totals would be closer to the 40 or 50 point mark. He also gets a bad rap because he’s not physical, again that is not his game. He had some pretty good chemistry with Bouma, they look good on a line together. He makes his line-mates better. Lots of teams were inquiring about him too.