Twenty-six-year-old centreman Mikael Backlund is easily the most controversial player to be profiled in this series, and maybe one of the most divisive Flames players in recent memory.
In the other articles so far, the title prefix of “how good is…” was entirely rhetorical. From Gaudreau to Giordano, each skater is undeniably a star or cornerstone player. Almost all fans would agree they are “core guys”. The question is a legitimate this time around.
Backlund is still considered largely expandable in most corners of Flames Nation. The popular sentiment is that he is a pretty good third line centre – a “nice to have”, but a guy you could leverage or package to fill another roster hole if possible. Third line C’s aren’t exactly rare after all. Even good ones.
The perception is understandable. Backlund is not a compelling player by most traditional measures. He’s not big or physical. He’s doesn’t boast a booming snapshot and he can’t really dangle through the bad guys at the blueline. His counting stats are mostly mediocre.
But there’s a reason myself and other writers at this site tirelessly defended Backlund. Even though he doesn’t wow the eyeballs crowd or win scoring races, what he does do – consistently, imperceptibly – is the one thing that wins hockey games.
Drive goal differential.
To Move Forward Go Backlund
For Gaudreau, Monahan and everyone else in this series, I have simply compiled a collection of impressive counting stats and trivia showing how well they compare to their peers and to other Flames historically. However, because Backlund’s value is hidden below the surface of traditional numbers, understanding his contributions is a bit more involved. That means we need to dig a bit deeper and go bit more unconventional. The numbers here will seem esoteric and overwhelming, but in fact it’s all very simple. And definitive.
The following three tables feature shot and goal statistics at even strength (5on5) over the last three seasons. The guys included are five Flames players who have skated at C at least semi-regularly over the last three seasons. I have mixed up the order and concealed the names for now.
All numbers via Corsica Hockey.
All Shot Attempts (Corsi)
Shots on Goal
Expected and Actual Goals
Lots of acronyms and numbers, but these results are clear and unambiguous.
For each table you have base counts and per 60 (minutes of ice time) rates of the stat in question. Then we have differentials and ratios. The one thing to look at if you start to go crosseyed is the last number in every table. It shows the Flames ratio of that particular metric with player X on the ice. At 50% or more the Flames got more of X than the opposition. Below 50% means they gave up more.
Backlund being the subject of this article spoils this thought experiment somewhat. It becomes immediately obvious glancing over these charts that one player is head and shoulders better than the rest – the Flames get more shots, score more goals and even have better expected goals results (based on shot quality models) than their opponents with PLAYER 4 on the ice at 5on5. That’s Backlund. He’s the best at every one of these measures. And not by a little bit.
The other guys included here are Matt Stajan, Joe Colborne, Markus Granlund and Sean Monahan. Can you tell any of them apart?
This is the unique magic of Mikael Backlund. The team is 500+ shot attempts, +300 shots and +20 goals better at ES with Mickis on the ice than, Sean Monahan over three seasons, but Monahan is poised to sign a long-term $6M contract this summer, while Backlund is frequently considered trade fodder at roughly half that price.
Did I mention that Backlund plays in much tougher circumstances than Sean?
The usage chart illustrates how each player in question has been deployed over the last three seasons. As usual, the Y-axis is the quality of competition each guy faces (higher up = tougher) while the X-axis is zone start ratio, or how often each guy starts in the offseason zone (further right = more offensive zone starts). Bubble colour equates to corsi ratio (possession). Blue = good, red = bad.
Backlund plays equally tough opposition to Monahan, but starts more often in the defensive zone. Don’t forget, Monahan’s most frequent line mates have been guys like Johhny Gaudreau and Jiri Hudler. Backlund, in contrast, has been stuck with constantly rotating misfit toys, including Colborne, Mason Raymond, Lance Bouma, David Jones and Paul Byron. his best linemate so far has been Michael Frolik, and then only for part of the most recent season.
I limited the list to Flames centres for simplicity, but Backlund pretty consistently leads all Flames forwards in these sorts of metrics year in and year out. He’s always one of the club’s top three skaters in terms of scoring chances, shots and shot attempts differentials. Every season.
By the way, we haven’t gotten into Backlund’s PK work.
Over the last three seasons, only three Flames players have seen over 300 minutes of ice time at 5on4: Backlund, Stajan and Bouma. Backlund’s results are by far the best.
For example, the Flames surrender 11 more shot attempts per hour with Stajan on the ice and 21 more shots per hour with Bouma skating. They also get more shots and goals for with Backs skating versus the other two. Oh, and Backlund has nine SH goals over that period. His 10 SH points at 5on4 since 2013 rank him fourth overall in the entire league. The three guys ahead of him? Jonathan Toews, Jamie Benn and Brad Marchand. Of them, only Marchand has more goals (10).
The Backlund Bump
The plaudits don’t end there. Pat Steinberg recently wrote an article on Backlund’s persistently positive effect on his linemates. He showed how skating with Backlund almost universally improves a guy’s scoring and shot ratios.
We’ll reiterate that point with this WOWY (With or Without You) table. Again, this if for the last three years and is at even strength. We limited this investigation to skaters who spent at least 300 minutes with Backlund.
Again, lots of info but the implications are obvious. For each guy, the grey bar represents his results away from Backlund. The blue bar represents his results while playing with Backlund (orange is Backlund away from the player). As you can see, just about everyone improves with Backlund.
The easiest way to conceptualize Backlund’s impact is “instant chemistry”. Anyone who plays with him sees their underlying numbers improve. The Flames take more shots, get more chances and score more goals than the bad guys with Backlund on the ice. He’s the only regular Flames forward you can say that about over the last three years. He’s also the team’s best PKer.
In short, Backlund isn’t a merely a “good” third line centre. He’s one of the most important forwards on Calgary’s roster with one of the best value contracts in the league. He’s not expendable or convenient trade fodder. He’s a core component the team should keep and build around if the goal is to become a contender in the West.