The true impact of Mikael Backlund

One of the questions we often ask when evaluating players is, “does he make those around him better?”. It’s one of the most sought after qualities in the sport, but also one of the hardest to quantify. My assertion over the last number of years has been that Calgary’s Mikael Backlund does just that, never more so than the last two seasons specifically. 

Well, now I’ve got some proof that drives it home: Backlund truly does elevate those around him.

I’m going to use a few examples to illustrate just how effective players are while playing with Backlund as their centre and the difference when flanking someone else. The evidence is quite remarkable, and I’m only using a few specific examples. In reality, I have yet to find a case over the last few seasons where a player doesn’t have more success (either production or possession) playing with Backlund as opposed to without.

All of the analysis compiled comes from HockeyAnalysis.com and uses data at even strength from either this season or last season, depending on the example. It’s also important to take into context that anytime a player is put on a line with Backlund, they’re instantly put into the most difficult matchup situations on the team. Backlund doesn’t play sheltered minutes, so neither do his linemates.

If you’ve always wondered why the Flames blogosphere has held Backlund in such high regard, sometimes to a creepy degree (attention Mike Fail), well, here’s why. Let’s start with our first example, shall we.

Sam Bennett

Bennett and Backlund played a great deal together during the 2015-16 season, specifically while Bennett was still on the wing. In fact, Bennett played more with Backlund than any other Calgary player not named Michael Frolik, and that difference was fewer than seven minutes over 82 games. Let’s take a look at the results.

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Pretty much everything is extreme in this example. On the possession side, Bennett spent far more time in the offensive end while playing with Backlund than not. Not only were Bennett’s minutes tougher from a matchup perspective while playing with Backlund, they were also significantly less sheltered. Bennett’s offensive zone start ratio was at 51.7% while playing with Backlund but was jacked up to 55.8% without him.

Just as staggering is Bennett’s production while playing with Backlund. The former fourth overall pick scored nine of his 15 even strength goals on the ice with Backlund despite playing almost 300 minutes less with him than everyone else.

Now, this isn’t shocking stuff and it’s definitely not an indictment on Bennett. He was in his rookie season (apparently he was 19 years old) and much of his time away from Backlund was spent learning how to play centre in the world’s toughest league. It stands to reason a guy in Bennett’s situation would have more success on Backlund’s wing in his first full season. Our next example is just as intriguing.

Joe Colborne

Colborne put up career numbers this past season and looks very much in line to get a nice, fat raise for next season. First off, I think it’s important to give Colborne some credit in this situation. His improvement in three seasons with Calgary has been noticeable and is a big reason for his offensive success. That said, you can’t deny how much playing with Backlund impacted him positively.

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Again, what jumps off the page right away with Colborne is how much more productive he was playing on a line with Backlund. Fourteen of his 39 even strength points came in that situation despite, again, far less time on Backlund’s wing than not. To break it down further, more than one third of Colborne’s even strength offence came while playing with Backlund less than one third of the time.

It’s also important to note that goals go in against the Flames at a far lesser rate playing with Backlund in both of these situations. Colborne and Bennett each see the amount of goals against scored go up by more than one goal per 60 when playing away from Backlund.

I do think it’s necessary to point out one caveat at this point in the article, though. Both Bennett and Colborne not only played with Backlund a great deal this season, they also had the benefit of playing with the pairing of Backlund and Frolik. Those two make a powerful forward duo, and I think it’s important to give Frolik’s presence some credit, too. However, to further make the case on Backlund, Frolik’s impact doesn’t apply to this next example.

Lance Bouma

We’re jumping back to the 2014-15 campaign to look at Bouma’s time with Backlund. Looking at data from Bouma’s most recent season borders on irrelevant because of how much of a write-off year it was for him, mainly due to injuries. The season before, though, was a breakout one for Bouma where he blew the doors, roof, and windows right off his prior career totals. As we’ll start to break down, playing with Backlund was a massive reason why.

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As you might be aware, a lot of Bouma’s offensive success two seasons ago came as a result of a sky high 15.4% shooting percentage. Minus the 2014-15 season, that same number over the course of his career is 4.8%. There’s no doubting Bouma rode the percentages to his new three-year deal, but it’s also tough to dispute the impact Backlund had.

Fifteen of Bouma’s goals that year were scored at 5-on-5 with Backlund on the ice for eight of them. I’m not saying the latter was responsible for all eight of those tallies, but when you factor in all the information thus far, I also don’t think it’s a coincidence. The massive difference in possession also pushes me in that direction; the six percent drop for Bouma without Backlund is the largest of the three examples.

Driving it home

I’ve got a few more closing notes to sum up the main thrust of this article. At 52.3%, Backlund had the best possession rate on the team this year and was one of three regulars (Frolik and Mark Giordano being the others) to finish in the black. Not to say he didn’t do it before, but more so than any other year of his career, Backlund elevated those around him most in 2015-16.

To really illustrate that, let’s take a look at Frolik, who was a great addition this season. Much like everyone else on the team (more on that in a second), Frolik was better playing with Backlund than playing without him. This data might have been the most convincing for me.

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I won’t bore you with another table, but the same is true for Giordano. The captain was way more productive 5-on-5 in situations with Backlund than without and there is almost a six percent gap in possession, too. It’s harder to correlate forwards to defencemen, but it’s definitely worth noting.

Finally, and perhaps most important, is the consistency in results this season. Every single regular player this year had better possession results with Backlund than playing without him. That applies to guys who played extensively with him or guys who only saw sprinkled minutes on the same line. Every regular player! The only outlier is Emile Poirier who played all of 2:31 without Backlund as his centre.

I’ve been accused of pumping Backlund’s tires too much in the past, but it’s stuff like this that I always fell back on. Backlund is Calgary’s only true two-way centre right now, he backs it up by posting top percentile possession results every single season, and boasts one of the team’s most cap-friendly contracts. If you haven’t already, you can add a new column to the equation, too: makes players better.

  • Theo4HoF

    Backlund always looks invisible for the first half of a season and than looks quite good down the stretch. I remember everyone saying that Bennett was carrying that line until he went back to center.

    I’m still on the fence about Backlund. If he could just be more assertive right from the start of the season instead of taking almost half a year to warm up he could be valuable.

  • Derzie

    An injury-free Backlund is a good Backlund. I have not been a fan and have several years of frustration in his inability to stay healthy & score consistently but no one can refute the season he had this year. More of the same please.

  • hulkingloooooob

    backs also had the best zone entries last season, better then johnny or mony or anyone, time after time i’d watch him somehow just waltz in and then hold on, finally making a good pass. the value of that is huge and should not be overlooked. please clone him.

  • MarbledBlueCheese

    By the time his career is over, I wonder how many bloated contracts given out to 3rd or 4th liners will he be responsible for? Cough cough Bouma cough Colborne

  • wot96

    I don’t understand the Backlund hate. Maybe he doesn’t put up the offensive numbers like Toews or Bergeron, but he has often been hurt. Compare his numbers to Ryan Kesler’s, except for the two years that Kesler was playing with the twins in Vancouver and/or getting a ton of power play time, their stats are very similar.

    The reality is that if he had a bunch of healthy seasons in his background, the Flames would have had to pay more, sooner. They sure as hell aren’t going to get away with another contract like the one he’s currently on if he’s healthy next season.

    Make him the number two center (like Kesler) and use him to control the other team’s top line (like Kesler). Play him with guys that are responsible defensively and have a dash of offensive flair. Worst comes to worst, you trade him next year if you really don’t think you can afford him.

    But personally, and you can hate on this all you like, I think he is very close to a core player.

  • MarbledBlueCheese

    Something we haven’t seen much of at all is Backlund centering a true sniper, someone with real finishing potential.

    What would that look like? He helped Colborne and Bouma plenty; what about someone who can already score?

    • Scary Gary

      Exactly, I’m not at all saying he’s Toews but Backlund may have been able to bridge the 11 point difference with Toews this year had he been playing with a scorer like Hossa or Kane.

    • Stan

      I thought this was a very interesting comment. As far as I can recall, Backlund has never spent a significant amount of time with any real scoring talent – I know he played a bit with Iginla, Cammy, and Tangs but IIRC that was sparingly. Regardless, I think it would be interesting to see what he could do with a talented winger.

      I know its a long shot, but say we win one of the lotteries and draft one of the Fins. I think it would be very interesting to see what a top 9 like this would look like:

      Gaudreau-Mony-FA/Trade –>

      Laine/Puljujarvi-Backs-Frolik –>

      Ferland-Bennett-Shinkaruk

  • ChinookArchYYC

    I’ve been saying it for 2 years now. Backlund gives his linemates a lift, but I didn’t expect those gaudy stats. Good work Steinberg.

    The Flames need to use Backlund in HR. The guy who’s sitting in the boardroom waiting to give you 2 weeks notice. If your on a line with Backlund & Frolik, the team is padding your stats and priming your departure.

  • urbzy

    Monahan, Bennet, and Backlund are an enviable trio of centermen. What’s that I’m always hearing about how hard it is to get good center depth? The only way this guy should ever be traded is if the return is a young 25+ goal scoring winger who likewise puts up good possession numbers (those guys are easy to find, right?). Otherwise you’re robbing peter to pay Paul.

  • MontanaMan

    I am admittedly not a fan of Backlund but admit that he had a good year this year. Having said that, it’s the first year he’s stayed healthy. With the holes the Flames need to fill and the depth at centre without him, I say trade him while his value is high. The ability to get a winger for the first or second line or a legitimate goaltender are too important to ignore and you need to give up something to get something.

    • ChinookArchYYC

      It will be RFA Joe Colburne with his 1-year-in-a-row results that will be traded. Backlund simply was rewarded for constantly doing good things on the ice.