It’s no secret that we’re fans of Mikael Backlund around these parts. He’s been a darling of the analytics community basically since he established himself as a full-time NHLer a few seasons ago.
If there’s one criticism of Backlund, it may be that he can’t stay healthy. He’s been a pending restricted free agent almost perpetually over the past few seasons – he’s up for another contract this summer – and the big argument against giving him a long-term, moderate-money contract has always seemingly been his body of work. It’s not a bad body of work, it’s just smaller than it should be given his age.
This season, he was hampered by an abdominal injury in training camp and the early season, was shut down for a couple months, then came back and was effective in his usual tough-minutes role. But he really, really needs a full, injury-free season under his belt.
Here is everyone that played 100+ even-strength minutes with Backlund in 2014-15’s regular season.
We’ve previously established that Kris Russell and Dennis Wideman were playing above their heads for a lot this season and, as a result, everyone they played with had depressed possession numbers. But beyond them, everybody is a fair bit better with Mikael Backlund than away from him. Even guys like T.J. Brodie and Mark Giordano, who play tough minutes. Heck, even Deryk Engelland, who isn’t a possession giant himself.
That’s pretty darn impressive, particularly considering these regular season numbers include that lengthy stretch in October where Backlund struggled through that abdominal injury before the team shut him down for awhile.
He was obviously struggling early-on, and when he came back, he was more at his “usual” level.
Here’s a look at Backlund’s deployment by Bob Hartley:
Of all the team’s forwards, Backlund had among (a) the toughest zone-starts, (b) the toughest competition and (c) the best relative possession numbers. And his deployment with a rotating cabal of wingers in the tough minutes allowed for Matt Stajan to anchor the fourth line and keep them from slipping too far into the abyss, and for Hartley to use Monahan, Gaudreau and Hudler as often as he could in the offensive zone.
Mikael Backlund is a pending restricted free agent. He’s a tremendously useful player, and despite playing a large chunk of the season with a nagging injury and basically not getting a full training camp, he posted good possession numbers and made his team better. His offensive totals aren’t any great shakes – 27 points in 52 games in the regular season, 2 points in 11 games in the playoffs – and he’s basically a 40-point player at the NHL level. But he’s a very effective defensive player with some offensive talent. He could work on his face-offs a bit – he’s been wobbling between 47-48% for the past few years – but he’s still effective and valuable on this club.
Right now, Backlund’s spot on this team seems safe. He’s one of their better face-off players, and arguably their best 200-foot center. But once Sam Bennett gets established up the middle, it may become a numbers game, and someone might either need to learn a new position or move to a new city.