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Steinberg's Slant: Backlund's Value

by Pat Steinberg / Calgary Flames

With three goals and five points in his last three games, Mikael Backlund is the hottest player on the Calgary Flames right now. He also poses an interesting conundrum for this team when it comes to his future. If you ask me, though, there shouldn’t be much of a question as to how Backlund fits in Calgary’s long-term plans.

So what conundrum does Calgary face? Well, first off, Backlund is in the final year of a two-year contract. That’s fairly simple, but it gets a little more complicated when you start to factor in the team’s organizational depth at centre ice.

Already at the NHL level, the Flames have had Backlund, Sean Monahan, Matt Stajan, Markus Granlund, Josh Jooris, and Joe Colborne all spend decent time this season down the middle. Then there’s 2014 fourth overall pick Sam Bennett, who projects as a high-end NHL centre. When you start to factor in AHL depth like newly acquired Drew Shore and Bill Arnold, you start to get the picture.

Mikael Backlund
Center  - CGY
GP: 14 |Goals: 4 | Assists: 5 | Pts: 9
Shots: 29 | +/-: 3
All of a sudden, if you’re playing centre in the Flames organization, you’ve got a lot of bodies to contend with. It’s very important for Backlund not to get lost in the shuffle, though. I say that because his value to the team is immense, and will only get bigger in the next few years.

Since being taken in the first round of the 2007 NHL Draft, Backlund has developed into a strong, all around pivot. Perhaps it didn’t happen as quickly as some fans had hoped, but there’s no question now that he’s arrived. Not only is Backlund putting up points in the present, he’s also coming off a career season where he put up 18 goals and 39 points in 76 games.

His worth to the team goes beyond just the points though. Over the last four seasons, his first four as a full time NHLer, Backlund has consistently been one of Calgary’s best possession-driving forwards. His Corsi rate has put him in the top three among Flames forwards in each of those four seasons, and he’s lead the team in that category the last two seasons. Plain and simple, Backlund spends has spent more time in the offensive zone than anyone has over the last four years.

To illustrate this, let’s look back at last season. With an offensive zone start of 46.4 percent, only four forwards on the team started shifts in the defensive zone more than Backlund did. Yet, his 4.69 shot rate, or Corsi rate, was higher than any other forward on the team. So, despite starting a lot of shifts in his own end, he spent more time at the other end than any other Flames forward did last season. Take into account he did this against some of the toughest players on the other team, and last season for Backlund becomes even more impressive.

Now it gets interesting. There’s no doubt Backlund is an effective hockey player who helps you win hockey games. But with all those centres we listed earlier, is there going to be a spot for him going forward? I think the answer to that question has to be unequivocally yes.

By virtue of age and ceiling, Monahan and Bennett are hopeful to be this team’s top two centres for years to come. Having Backlund, who is only 25 years old, along there with them as they develop into that will be nothing but helpful.

Right off the hop, it’s likely to take some time for Bennett to be ready to play top end minutes down the middle. Monahan wasn’t ready in year one, and he’s still learning how to do it in his sophomore season. Backlund can do it, and do it well. With him there, the Flames have fare more leeway to insulate their young centres, specifically Bennett, as he develops early in his career. That’s a good thing.

Plus, what’s wrong with having three young, good centres? The LA Kings, Boston Bruins, and Pittsburgh Penguins have all won Stanley Cups in recent years on the back of three-deep depth down the middle. Successful teams build at centre ice, and that’s what Calgary looks to be doing now.

Yes, that poses questions about how other guys like Granlund and Jooris, among others, would be used going forward. They’re fair questions, but they aren’t ones that need answering in the immediate future. The question about Backlund does need to be addressed in the next number of months. It’s pretty clear from this vantage point that keeping him around long term would be nothing but beneficial for the Flames.

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