Analytics suggest the Calgary Flames have a hidden gem in Mikael Backlund, who makes others around him better and makes scoring more difficult for opponents.
To compete in the West, the most important thing a team needs is depth and star power at center ice. The best of the West, including last year’s Cup-champion Los Angeles Kings, have it in spades, and it’s a huge part of their success. So it should come as no surprise the Flames were pretty much a unanimous choice as the West’s tribute to the Connor McDavid Hunger Games. On paper they look like they have one of the worst groups of centers in the league (we ranked their centers 29th in our season preview, ahead of only Buffalo), but on the ice that’s not entirely true. That’s because the Flames have a top center in their lineup who could be the West’s best-kept secret: Mikael Backlund. Up until last season, the 24th overall pick in 2007 had been flying way under the radar, spending most of his time toiling on the Flames’ third line. But he made a huge jump last year and, by the end of the season, he became a fixture at the top of the depth chart. He even spent some time on the top power play and penalty-killing units. “I’ve seen him over the years and I really thought last year his game took a significant step forward,” said Flames GM Brad Treliving. “He was a really impactful player here, especially down the stretch. He was a consistent guy last year, but I look at his games after Christmas — and I’ve gone back and watched all the games when I got here — he really just jumps off the map at you.”
Backlund’s never been a big offensive producer – his 39 points last season was a career high – but his totals don’t tell the whole tale, especially not last year. Once he started getting better minutes and linemates, a lot of things changed. Splitting up Backlund’s season into two 38-game halves right around Christmas, it’s clear what Treliving was seeing wasn’t a mirage. His production improved in a big way.
More points along with better shot generation and suppression meant the unheralded pivot was making big strides at both ends of the ice. He did all that while consistently seeing tough matchups and zone starts. From December 30 onward, Backlund had the most ice time among all Flames forwards. While the results from Backlund’s second half are certainly eye-opening, his underlying numbers suggest he’s been subtly improving the team’s results for his entire career. In terms of puck possession, Backlund has the ability to elevate the game of whoever he plays with. Over the last five years, Backlund has a 53.2 Corsi percentage, while the average Corsi of his teammates when he’s not playing with them is just 48.6 percent (
www.puckalytics.com/#/corsistats). Basically, when Backlund’s on the bench, Calgary is, well, Calgary. But when he’s on the ice, the Flames control the puck as much as most elite teams. Huge difference. That means that on average, Backlund improves his teammates’ Corsi by 4.6 percent. Here’s how he ranks among centers that have played 3,000 or more minutes from 2009-14. Hint: really well.
Knowing these are the guys at the top, it’s a fair to say what’s being measured here is a great indication of two-way play. That speaks volumes to the talent Backlund has on both sides of the ice. While it’s obviously easier to give a boost to teammates on a team like the Flames than it is on the Blackhawks or Kings, the fact remains Backlund is in the driver’s seat, and what he’s doing on the ice can’t be discredited simply because he plays for a cellar dweller. When he’s on the ice, the Flames don’t even resemble one. Treliving believes what makes Backlund so effective is his ability to think the game at a very high level. He credits hockey IQ and vision as two of Backlund’s strongest assets. Backlund can read and react to plays well and, due to his underrated speed, he can keep pace with or without the puck. Combine all that with a fierce competitiveness in protecting pucks and winning battles and you have a player who’ll do anything to get the puck and keep it. “He’s a big part of our team. He’s one of those guys, and (the) data emphasizes that he can make others around him better. That’s a really important quality, especially for the position he plays. At center ice, there’s a lot that’s expected on both sides of the puck, and sometimes the defensive responsibilities get overlooked.” Backlund’s not just good at giving teammates a boost, though. In doing that he also shuts down other teams’ top lines in the process. Looking at the players he played against the most last year (15 minutes or more), specifically 30 other top-line players, Backlund suppresses their attempts at the net significantly while also generating more attempts the other way. On average, these star players have a Corsi of 52.5 percent. When they face Backlund that drops to 46.1. He should probably stay away from San Jose and Edmonton, though.
All of this isn’t to say Backlund is the sixth-best center in the league, or that he even belongs in that group yet. Treliving is obviously hesitant to put the weight of the world on the six-foot, 198-pound center. But it’s clear Backlund has the potential to be an elite two-way threat in this league, if he isn’t one already. One thing that does separate that group of perennial Selke finalists from Backlund is team success, something Treliving alluded to. “The arrows have to start pointing up in terms of team success, and when you start talking about (that group of players), there’s some similarities and differences with all of them, but the one thing is that they’ve helped take their teams from where they were a few years ago and turned them into top elite teams,” Treliving said. “I’m not putting that burden on Mikael’s shoulders by himself, but that’s the challenge for all of us.” It’ll take time for the Flames to get to that level, but with the way they’re being built, they’re on the right path. They have a bright future at the position with recent top-10 picks Sean Monahan and Sam Bennett in the fold. But those two are Calgary’s future. If the Flames want to start their path back toward respectability, Backlund is their best option right now. Watching Backlund last season, there’s the sense 39 points was just a stepping stone for much bigger things, and the data suggests the same. With Mike Cammalleri gone to New Jersey and the lack of winger depth on the Flames, there’s a chance Backlund stagnates or takes a step back. But with Backlund’s talent level, he’ll be able to elevate the game of anyone he plays with, and it’s more likely this is the year he starts turning more heads around the league. “There’s an air of confidence to him. I think Mikael is starting to realize how good he can be. Now we’ve seen what he’s capable of, that’s where we’re shooting for and beyond that. We’re just starting to see Mikael Backlund scratch the surface here.” The secret’s out. The guy can play.