Realistic Expectations: Mikael Backlund

It’s really easy to like Mikael Backlund as a hockey player.

The Calgary Flames drafted Backlund way back in 2007, and since then he’s quietly become the gift that keeps on giving. He quietly developed into a reliable two-way player as a youngster, quickly adjusting to the North American pro game. Then he became a really good two-way player who could protect and elevate more limited players. More recently, he’s added a bit of grit and offensive confidence – he scored 20 goals for the first time in his NHL career in 2015-16 – and become a fairly consistent difference-maker in his mid-20s.

What should we expect from Backlund this season?

The Year Before

Backlund has been an NHL regular since 2010-11. Since then, he’s consistently been one of the strongest possession players on the Flames, usually one of the top three forwards on the team. A “bad” year for Backlund is a sub-50% Corsi season that places him sixth among the team’s regular forwards.

Here’s his player usage chart over his NHL career: other than 2014-15, where the Flames had iffy possession stats team-wide but managed to get into the playoffs, Backlund has had strong numbers is tough situational deployments consistently.

Clean Image for Blogs (by season)

Over the last couple of seasons, we’ve written extensively about the “Backlund Bump.” Here’s a WOWY analysis of Backlund’s last five seasons. Let’s see how long it takes to find somebody that gets substantially worse with Backlund – bearing in mind that he’s played against tough opposition in defensive zone starts pretty consistently over the past five seasons.

For the sake of this discussion, let’s say that difference of less than 1% is noise.

Player
CF%
With
CF%
Without
Verdict?
Brodie 53.8% 47.9% Better
Giordano 54.7% 48.1% Better
Russell 45.1% 45.7% Even
Wideman 45.8% 46.2% Even
Bouma 48.2% 40.9% Better
Hudler 49.0% 48.9% Even
Butler 48.3% 44.4% Better
Jones 47.4% 45.0% Better
Stempniak 52.3% 49.0% Better
Frolik 52.3% 53.5% Worse

Bear in mind that Frolik was battling injuries for some of last year, and even then, he was only “slightly” worse. It takes going all the way down the list to get to Jay Bouwmeester before you get somebody with a 2+% difference in their possession stats, and that’s the worst performance anybody who spent 100 or more even strength minutes has with Backlund over the last five years.

In other words? Backlund is a really good two-way player. If you play with him, despite the fact that you’re playing against the other team’s best players with a lot of defensive zone starts, at worst your possession stats will slightly dip but most likely they’ll trend up significantly.

Following the 2012-13 lockout, which he spent in Vasteras, Backlund returned with a renewed confidence in the offensive zone. His shooting percentages have ranged between 9.1% and 13.5% over the past four seasons (and collectively he’s shooting 10.9% over that span). Last season he shot 13.5%, getting particularly hot over the last stretch of the season – he finally hit the 20-goal mark by virtue of scoring 10 goals in the final 20 games of the season after scoring 11 in the previous 62 games.

His “real” level of production is somewhere in between those two rates, I’d wager.

Expectations

Backlund will most likely be the center of either the second or third line, depending on how much the club feels they need to shelter Sam Bennett’s trio. The Flames seem to have fallen in love with pairings throughout the roster, and Backlund is paired with his primary 2015-16 linemate, Frolik. They, and whoever the third person on the line happens to be, will likely be used in a shutdown role.

For the past few years, Backlund’s shown the ability to produce regardless of his linemates and so far it seems that Glen Gulutzan will be using him fairly consistently on the second power play unit. Should he and Frolik get placed with a player that can bury chances at even strength, a second season of 20+ goals and 40+ points is probably in the works. If they have to carry somebody for the whole season the floor for Backlund’s production is probably 15 goals and 30 points, which is still fairly respectable.