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.
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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:
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.
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:
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.