It’s no secret that we’re fans of Mikael Backlund around these parts. And it’s not without good reason.
Originally drafted by the Calgary Flames way back in 2007, Mikael Backlund was a promising young center from Sweden that the club hoped would come over to North America and contribute. While he hasn’t really emerged as a goal-scorer to a large degree at the National Hockey League level, Backlund has quietly become a really important player to the Flames success.
Eight years after he was originally drafted, Mikael Backlund is what he is at this point. But what he is, is a pretty useful hockey player.
Mikael Backlund first joined the Flames organization as a first round pick in the 2007 Draft. While he probably won’t ever reach the vaunted heights of fellow 2007 picks Patrick Kane, Jakub Voracek or Kevin Shattenkirk (and maybe not even Logan Couture), he’s quietly turned into a pretty damn good NHLer.
Backlund spent the 2007-08 season in Sweden, then leaped to North America mid-way through the 2008-09 season and finished out his junior eligibility with the Kelowna Rockets (including a trip to that year’s Memorial Cup). He turned pro in 2009-10 and began his progression from “AHL player who spent a bit of time in Calgary” to “really good AHLer they wanted to make room for” to “developing young NHLer,” finally making the Flames full-time in 2010-11.
Since then, he’s honed bits of his game and become a really effective defensive player. He’s positionally sound and relies more on his stick-checking and skating to corral opposition players rather than out-and-out physicality, though he has added some grit to his game. His offensive game has come along slowly, with it taking a bigger jump after he returned from his native Sweden, where he spent the 2012-13 lockout with his hometown team in Vasteras.
He enters the 2015-16 season as arguably Calgary’s most effective 200-foot center. Sean Monahan’s more relied upon for goal-scoring, while Backlund (and whatever line he anchors) is counted upon to agitate and shut down the other side’s best and brightest.
First off, I hope Backlund can stay healthy. Offensive hockey is often based upon timing and rhythm, and it’s tough to develop those if you’re always hurt. Backlund, bless him, gets hurt a lot. The fewest games he’s missed as a full-time NHLer is 6, in 2013-14. Last season he missed 30 games. In 2012-13 he missed 16. In 2011-12 he missed 41, half the season. The coaching staff obviously value what Backlund brings to the table, but it’s tough to rely upon him if he’s on the shelf for between a third and half of each season.
Backlund will hit the 300-game mark this season, which is pretty cool, and makes him one of the most prolific Flames first rounders of recent lore. He’s put up 128 points in 298 games, meaning he’s good for about 0.17 goals and 0.26 assists per game. Using his career numbers, last season he actually over-shot expectations by five points. (When a player gets 27 points and they’re “over-shooting,” they’re a defensive player.)
In a full season (and by that I mean one where he doesn’t miss time with injuries), I think Backlund should have a reasonable ceiling of 15 goals and 40 points. In the two seasons where he played 70+ games, he scored 10 and 18 goals respectively (and had 25 and 39 points). Depending on his role and who he plays with, he can probably hit 40 points.
Calgary’s centers in 2015-16 will probably be Monahan, Sam Bennett, Matt Stajan and Backlund. Bennett will need a ton of high ground in terms of zone starts and line match-ups, but the bigger key will be whether Bennett’s used as the second line center (with linemates like Michael Frolik) or as a third line center (with the lesser lights). Backlund and Frolik together could be a wonderful, wonderful thing (in terms of some great 200-foot hockey), but Bob Hartley might want to give Bennett that extra defensive help so he can focus on offense. If you’re pessimistic, a 30-point season as a third line center for Backlund probably isn’t too bad. If you accept that high-water-mark of 40 points, I think 35 points is a reasonable middle-ground to expect him to achieve.
Backlund is what he is at this point. He won’t score a ton of points, but he’s got decent skills with the puck and is probably Calgary’s best center away from it. He’s effective enough in his role to allow the Flames to use him to help Sam Bennett come along as a center – probably by eating up the tough minutes and ugly match-ups so that Bennett can have an easier time as a rookie. And if Bennett can come along quickly as a center, then suddenly the Flames could become pretty scary up the middle going forward.