The Nightmare Scenario: What if they trade Mikael Backlund?

We’re in the run-up to what’s affectionately known as the “silly season” in hockey circles: the annual trade deadline. There has been a lot of attention paid to the Calgary Flames and their impending unrestricted free agents as far as potential trades are concerned. But there’s one scenario that I’ve had in the back of my mind, gnawing away at me.

I’m concerned that the Flames may trade Mikael Backlund before the trade deadline.

Here’s why I think it could happen.

SOME BACKGROUND

Kris Russell is a UFA on July 1. He’s 28 and a pretty decent fit with the Flames group, even though his underlying numbers leave a bit to be desired. (To be fair, basically every “defensive defenseman” has bad underlyings, but if they had good underlyings they wouldn’t be cast as “defensive defensemen”…)

Regardless, Russell is a guy that’s valued highly internally – he’s an alternate captain and plays a lot of minutes, and teammates really respect how he sacrifices his body – and there are reports from such luminaries as Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman that the Flames are trying to re-sign him.

The challenge for the Flames is that Russell’s likely due for a raise – particularly if the Flames are trying to keep him from going to the open market – and Calgary’s in a cap crunch for next season. Oh, and the cap might be going down, too. So if the Flames are intending to make a serious push to retain Russell’s services, they’re going to have to move out some salary.

That’s where Backlund could factor in.

Here’s a brief list of players with term and cap hits over $2.5 million for next season:

  • $6.75 million – Mark Giordano
  • $5.75 million – Dougie Hamilton
  • $5.25 million – Dennis Wideman
  • $4.65 million – T.J. Brodie
  • $4.3 million – Michael Frolik
  • $3.575 million – Mikael Backlund
  • $3.5 million – Ladislav Smid
  • $3.194 million (with bonuses) – Sam Bennett
  • $3.15 million – Mason Raymond
  • $3.125 million – Matt Stajan
  • $2.917 million – Deryk Engelland

There are a number of players here that the Flames absolutely do not want to part ways with (Giordano, Hamilton, Brodie, Frolik, Bennett) and guys that they probably can’t move because of their cap hits (Wideman, Smid, Raymond, Stajan, Engelland). But Backlund? Well, he’s not a high-end offensive player and his primary talent is being a really great two-way player, and he’s signed for two more seasons.

There’s possibly smoke to this fire, as Friedman noted in this week’s 30 Thoughts:

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It probably comes down to which player the organization values more.

SOME MEASURES OF TALENT

Despite his modest offensive points production historically, Backlund is a damn fine hockey player when you take into account several metrics that control for ice time.

  • He’s second among Flames forwards in most Corsi For Per 60 Minutes (behind only Frolik).
  • He’s fourth among Flames forwards in fewest Corsi Against Per 60 Minutes (behind Bollig, Ferland and Jooris, all of whom play against lesser opposition).

Okay, he’s good at getting shot attempts and preventing shot attempts against. What about scoring chances? (e.g., taking away far-away shot attempts from along the boards)

  • He’s third among Flames forwards in most Scoring Chances For Per 60 Minutes (behind only Frolik and Gaudreau).
  • He’s fourth among Flames forwards in fewest Scoring Chances Against Per 60 Minutes (again, behind Bollig, Ferland and Jooris).

The only area where Backlund isn’t exceptional is when you get down to the the home plate “high danger” area. He’s eighth among the team’s forwards in High Danger Chances For Per 60 Minutes (though he’s ahead of Gaudreau) and he’s sixth in High Danger Chances Against Per 60 Minutes.

In short? Backlund’s one of the best players on the team in terms of shot and scoring chance generation and suppression.

How about Russell?

  • He’s ahead of only Engelland in Corsi For Per 60 Minutes, and dead last among defenders in Corsi Against Per 60 Minutes.
  • He’s fourth in Scoring Chances For Per 60 Minutes (behind Giordano, Brodie and Hamilton) but dead last in Scoring Chances Against Per 60 Minutes.
  • He’s fourth in High Danger Chances Per 60 Minutes (behind Wideman, Smid and Hamilton) but second-last in High Danger Chances Against Per 60 Minutes (behind Wideman).

In other words, Backlund is one of the team’s best players in offensive generation and defensive suppression, while Russell is among the team’s worst in both of those areas – especially the defensive side.

Here’s a Player Usage Chart comparison; towards the top is tougher opposition, towards the left is tougher zone starts, while blue is good Relative Corsi and red is bad Relative Corsi.

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Russell gets tons of offensive zone starts and faces second and third liners and gets his head kicked in. Backlund gets lots of defensive zone starts and faces first and second line players and kicks their heads in. (The quality of competition difference isn’t huge, but the zone start difference is pretty stark.)

IT WOULD BE BAD

If the Flames traded away Backlund to free up cap space to re-sign Russell, the available data suggests that it would be a really poor allocation of resources. Backlund is very good at everything you’d hope a player could do if he wasn’t scoring a ton of goals, while Russell is pretty poor at most of those metrics (and thus he has to rely on shot blocking and other unsustainable but laudable acts of physical sacrifice to keep his head above water).

I have a lot of respect for many in the Flames hockey operations department, but choosing Russell over Backlund would be a really dumb move.