Being a former first round draft pick, the expectations on Mikael Backlund are higher than they might be on other pending restricted free agents. Even though the 2011/2012 season had it’s difficult moments for Backlund, I think there are a lot of postives to look forward to in the coming years.
Mikael Backlund, 23 , 6’0, 190 pounds, drafted round 1 (24th overall) 2007 NHL Entry Draft
2011/2012 totals: 41 GP, 4 G, 7 A, 11 P, 16 PIM, -13
2011/2012 cap hit: $1.271 million
In my eyes, Backlund was one of Calgary’s most effective centers last year. I know some will disagree with that, but among Flames pivots, he spent more time in the offensive zone than most Flames forwards despite being deployed more often defensively. Backlund started shifts in the offensive zone just 44.6% of the time which was the second lowest total among regular Flames forwards. Despite that, he was one of just three forwards on the team to finish with a positive shot rate. When tracking all shots put towards the net for and against, Backlund finished with a 1.91 rating which tells you one thing: even though he started more shifts inside his own blueline, he spent more time at the right end of the ice. I saw Backlund do a good job with his positioning to affect the play out of his own zone and I saw him work a strong cycle once the puck was in the offensive zone. Being a positive possession player at center and at 23 years of age is impressive, and I thought there were some nice steps taken last year.
Backlund also ran into some bad luck last year, and I’ll explain why that falls into the “pro” category. Realistically, a player who spends some of the most time in the offensive zone on the team should have put up higher point totals than 11 points in 41 games. However, Backlund was perhaps the unluckiest Flames forward this year, because he was in on a lot of scoring chances and in fact had one of the higher positive chance ratios on the team. The unlucky factor comes when looking at Backlund’s shooting percentage, which finished at 4.7%, more than two percentage points lower than the year before. Considering the league average hovers just under 9%, it’s fair to say there was some bad luck that played into his low totals, not just him being a “bad shooter”.
On top of that, Backlund’s on-ice shooting percentage finished at 5.28%, another well-below-average total that is a little more telling. The on-ice number totals the percentage of all shots taken by Flames players on the ice, meaning the percentages worked against him in a big way; nobody seemed to score when he was on the ice, which truly is bad luck. You almost always see those numbers improve to the league norm, and his percentages will almost certainly come up next season, which means so will his point totals if he keeps up the trend of being a positive possession player.
Another positive is Backlund’s age. He’s 23 years old and will be for the majority of the 2012/2013 season, so there’s still plenty of growth room there. A forward typically enters his prime starting at 26 or 27, so knowing he’s got three or four years before that happens, there’s some good potential down the road. Re-signing him will also be affordable, as Backlund’s low counting numbers won’t put him in line for a huge raise. Just like Blair Jones, he’s an NHL center who can help you right now but also won’t affect your cap in a prohibitive way.
To be honest, I don’t see a lot of cons with him as I’m a huge, huge fan. I don’t know if you can put “unrealistic expectations” into this category, but it’s certainly something that has played against him at times. Because he was a first round pick, some have certain marks that he should be hitting in terms of goals and points. But to me, Backlund is, and always will be, defined by more than his points. He’s a center that can play tough minutes at both ends of the ice, but I don’t think we’re talking about the team’s top end point scoring pivot for years to come. And that’s okay. David Legwand was a #2 overall pick in 1998 and has never put up the point totals of other top two picks, but he’s been absolutely vital to the success of the Nashville Predators, much the same way I see Backlund being to the Flames. So, I guess the drawback would be Backlund’s upside in terms of actual points. 50-60 points I think is attainable, but 80-90 is probably not realistic.
There’s also a slight worry about Backlund being injury prone, which I can somewhat understand. He suffered a finger injury in training camp that kept him out a big chunk at the start of the regular season. Then, in February, he suffered a shoulder injury against the Vancouver Canucks that knocked him out for the final 26 games of the regular season. It’s important to point out, however, that this was the first injury riddled season he’s had; Backlund played 74 games during the 2010/2011 season, and 77 the year before.
I don’t think there’s any question. The Flames need to re-sign Backlund for myriad reasons. First, they don’t have the luxury of not bringing back 23 year old forwards who have proven they can play in the NHL on a regular basis. He’s improved in his two full seasons with Calgary and I only see that improvement continuing with him still being at a very young age. His bad luck last season points to two postive things: first, an affordable contract and, second, much higher totals next year. Finally, he is a restricted free agent, so he’s also a controllable asset; you don’t let players walk in this situation. Backlund was one of Calgary’s most effective centers last year so I don’t see any reason why the Flames wouldn’t bring him back.