Photo Credit: Candice Ward/USA TODAY Sports
Brad Treliving’s tenure as the general manager of the Calgary Flames got off to a rocky start – particularly with the club’s questionable decision to sign a handful of marginal contributors to big contracts in unrestricted free agency – but he rebounded, and put together a mostly sparkling first year as the club’s general manager.
In interviews, Treliving comes off as quotable and as sharp as a whip. While it’s still a bit too early to tell for sure, it sure looks like the Flames harvested a strong crop of young assets at the 2014 Draft. Meanwhile as the Flames surpassed all reasonable expectations throughout the year, Treliving wisely took the long view on nearly everything, burning a year of Sam Bennett’s entry-level contract aside (and if a short-term move helps you net two additional home playoff dates, then it’s surely worth it).
Though we can expect a good deal of internal improvement from the Flames’ young core, this organization will still have a lot of work to do if they hope to match this past season’s results next year. In particular, the team has a handful of key restricted players to re-sign, including two-way centre Mikael Backlund and grinding winger Lance Bouma. How the club prioritizes negotiations with Bouma and Backlund promises to reveal an awful lot about what we can expect from the Treliving era.
The story of Bouma’s season is not altogether different then the story of the Flames’ season as a whole. The big 25-year-old winger is a hearty checker and an excellent shot blocker, and in many ways he fits the Flames’ mold of grit, hard-work and size along the wall.
In a contract year, Bouma set a career high with 16 goals in 78 games. it wasn’t just a career high for Bouma in the NHL. It was his most productive offensive season since he graduated to the major junior level in 2006.
Bouma’s offensive totals were percentage inflated, which again, is the story of the Flames’ season. Not a noted goal scorer at any stop along his path to the NHL, Bouma managed to convert on over 15 percent of his shots on goal during the 2014-15 campaign. The bounces allowed Bouma to score even-strength goals at a rate that would be very impressive for a top-line forward.
There is a good chance that Bouma will be a quality contributor and penalty killer for several years to come. Expecting him to continue to shoot 15 percent though is foolish.
Though Bouma had a positive albeit marginal impact on the Flames’ shot generation at 5-on-5, his individual shot rate was pedestrian. Overall his track record would suggest that he could contribute offense at a respectable rate for a third-line forward, but his underlying performance is more suggestive of a decent fourth liner. There’s nothing wrong with that of course, particularly considering Bouma’s physical value and ability to pitch in on the penalty kill.
The key for the Flames and Treliving though is to be wary of betting on Bouma to be the player he was last season, and not the fourth-line caliber forward he’s been throughout his NHL, AHL and major junior career.
Where Bouma’s contributions last season were noisy – bit hits, key shot blocks, goals! – Backlund’s were understated. Everything about Backlund is understated actually.
Backlund, 26, is a table setter. He’s like the centreman version of Anton Stralman in that he helps drive offensive zone time for his team, but the way in which he does it, while effective, often escapes notice. Instead it’s the players Backlund is matched with who get the glory.
This is key not only for evaluating Backlund’s value, but also for evaluating Bouma’s. Bouma served as Backlund’s most frequent line-mate last season, and it’s probably not a coincidence that he authored his finest professional season while logging a tonne of ice time with the play driving Swedish pivot.
Another good example of the Backlund effect is the praise that was heaped upon Joe Colborne and Bennett in the postseason. Particularly in the games that were played in Vancouver in that first round series, Bennett and Colborne seemed to be in the thick of it, and they were. Unmentioned was that they were playing with the one centreman on the Flames who was able to keep his head above water territorially speaking in playoff road games against the Canucks.
Though he only produces offense at a third-line rate, Backlund is an elite defensive player and penalty killer. He’s silently one of the best defensive centremen in hockey and everyone who plays with him fares better than they do otherwise.
The Backlund Effect
Bouma is a good example of the Backlund effect. The gritty winger was a sub-40 percent Corsi For player in the 550 minutes he spent flanking the likes of Markus Granlund, Joe Colborne and Josh Jooris. His offensive output lagged as well, as Bouma scored seven of his 15 5-on-5 goals in those 550 minutes. He scored the other eight in just over 360 minutes with Backlund, and the Flames also controlled a much more respectable 45 percent of shot attempts when Backlund and Bouma were on the ice together.
Over the past four years, Backlund has spent at least 150 minutes of even-strength ice time with 12 different forwards. Ranging in quality from T.J. Galiardi (now out of the league) to Jarome Iginla, 11 of those 12 forwards did better by Corsi For percentage with Backlund than they did without him. The one exception, Curtis Glencross, fared exactly the same with and without Backlund.
Essentially Backlund excels at what the Flames, as a team, do poorly. He’s consistently proven himself able to help his teams control the run of play, something the Flames struggled with enormously. Bouma seems to fit the Burkean paradigm a bit better, but last season’s success could prove ephemeral for the same reasons that Calgary’s team level success could – his offensive output was driven by factors, like luck, that are unlikely to prove repeatable.
Finally, it’s nearly impossible to find players like Backlund, whereas Bouma is more easily and affordably replaced. Just looking in-house, the Flames have a variety of players in the system who could prove capable of replacing a good portion of what Bouma brings to the table, from Michael Ferland to Emile Poirier to Hunter Smith further down the road.
There are no likely ace-defensive centremen waiting in the wings for the Flames.
One year away from unrestricted free agency and eligible to file for arbitration, Backlund’s negotiations could be protracted. It also seems likely that he’ll be able to demand $4 million plus on the open market a year from now, and that’s probably what he’s looking for in selling any of his unrestricted seasons this summer. It’s a steep price to pay for a player who generates offense at a third-line level, but Backlund’s defensive chops are a rare commodity.
Re-signing Backlund to a multi-year deal should be one of Treliving’s major priorities this summer, frankly. And if the team can’t use Backlund’s final restricted season to bring down his cap hit, and instead opts to pay the likes of Bouma, then that won’t auger well for the Burke-Treliving era of Flames hockey.
The status of Calgary’s restricted free agents could have a massive impact on how Treliving approaches this years entry draft. If you want a chance to witness this year’s draft in person, the Virtual League of Hockey will be flying two lucky virtual GMs down to Sunrise Florida to watch it all unfold from June 25th to June 28th. By registering for a free account you will automatically be entered for your chance to win. The VLH lets you create your own team, develop players and challenge a community of hockey fans from around the world. Now you also have the chance to learn from the world’s best GMs at the entry draft! Join today for your shot at the grand prize.