Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Future is Green for Mikael Backlund

You know how the story begins if you're a Calgary Flames fan.
  • 18-year-old centre selected in first round of the NHL draft.
  • Made NHL debut as a teenager but played remainder of that season in the WHL, sliding his entry level contract back one year.
  • With expectations high, struggled offensively during his first three years as a pro. In one full season in the NHL and two seasons split between the NHL and AHL, fails to exceed 15 goals while playing over 135 NHL games.
  • As a restricted free agent, signed a discounted one-year deal for well under $1-million, hoping to revive his fledgling career. He promptly turned in his best year, posting career-best offensive numbers.
  • An RFA once more, contract negotiations drag on as he seeks a long term contract after his breakout season.
  • With arbitration looming, the two sides compromise and agree to two-year contract for around $3-million, leaving he player less than age 27 and still an RFA when it ends.
Do you know who I'm talking about?  If you guessed Mikael Backlund, you're sort of correct in that yes, everything mentioned above is very much true for the 24-year-old Swede. However, every detail is also true in describing how the NHL career began for Gilbert Brule.

And in case you haven't noticed, Brule -- drafted 6th overall in 2005, two years prior to the draft in which Backlund was picked 24th, is no longer in the NHL. In fact, Brule isn't playing pro hockey anywhere.

How the Brule Story Ended

With a two-year, $3.7 million contract in place, Brule opened the 2010-11 season with the Edmonton Oilers, scoring a goal in the season opener against Calgary. But, after three healthy months, he suffered three separate injuries in a miserable finish to the year.

Next came a tumultuous off-season in which Brule was traded to Los Angeles, only to be controversially un-traded right after when the Kings deemed him damaged goods and still suffering lingering effects from a late-season concussion. Still with the Oilers, Brule began the next year in the minors before being claimed off waivers by Phoenix in January. He finished the year with five goals and nine assists in 33 games with the Coyotes.

Last year, Brule signed with Zurich in Switzerland, only to be released in October by the Marc Crawford-coached club after failing to score a goal in 14 games.

How the Backlund Story Ends

Nobody is expecting Backlund's career to crash and burn like it did for Brule. That said, it's no surprise that after the lockout-shortened season, Calgary General Manager Jay Feaster took the cautious approach Wednesday of "show me more" when re-signing Backlund to a two year, $3-million 'bridge' contract -- meaning it's the one that should lead to a more lucrative contract the next time.

If recent history is any indication -- Brule aside, the chances of this situation ultimately turning out well for both Backlund and the Flames are very good. In fact, 90% of past similar occurrences have resulted in a happy ending.

While Brule's story stood out for how eerily identical his career began in comparison to Backlund, Brule was also the lone example I found in the last decade of a first or second round draft pick not turning a similar valued two-year bridge contract into a hefty pay raise two years later.

This should be reassuring for Backlund and for Calgary also, who desperately needs to get stronger up the middle and would be delighted if he could emerge as the No. 1 centre they've been seeking or at minimum, a solid number two -- perhaps behind newly drafted Sean Monahan.

A Happy Ending, Nine Times out of Ten

The case study for the NHLPA for how to make more money by going short-term first, then long-term, would be Max Pacioretty. After struggling to establish himself his first three seasons, the Montreal winger settled for a two-year $3.25-million contract in the summer of 2011. Pacioretty busted out offensively that next year, leading the Canadiens in scoring. That next summer with one year still to go, he cashed in big time signing a six-year $27-million extension.

Here are all nine examples I found since 2004 where a first or second round draft pick followed up their three-year ELC with a two-year contract of similar value to Backlund's. In each instance it did, indeed, 'bridge' that player to a more lucrative, long term contract.

Max Pacioretty Montreal (1st round, 22nd in 2007)
  • Prior to 2011-12, signed for two years, $3.25 million
  • After leading Montreal in scoring the first year, signed a six-year, $27 million extension
Brandon Dubinsky NY Rangers/Columbus (2nd round, 60th in 2004)
  • Prior to 2009-10, signed for two years, $3.7 million
  • After scoring 44 goals over the two seasons, re-signed for four years, $16.8 million
Drew Stafford Buffalo (1st round, 13th in 2004)
  • Prior to 2009-10, signed for two years, $3.8 million
  • After scoring 31 goals in 62 games in the second year, re-signed for four years, $16 million
Wayne Simmonds Los Angeles/Philadelphia (2nd round, 61st in 2007)
  • Prior to 2011-12, signed up for two years, $3.5 million
  • After scoring 28 goals in the first year, signed a six-year, $23.8 million extension
Kyle Turris Phoenix/Ottawa (1st round, 3rd in 2007)
  • In November of 2011-12, signed for two years, $2.8 million
  • After reaching career highs in goals (12) and assists (17) in Ottawa in the first year, signed a five-year, $17.5 million extension
Artem Anisimov NY Rangers/Columbus (2nd round, 54th in 2006)
  • Prior to 2011-12, signed for two years, $3.75 million
  • After scoring at a higher rate than anyone on Columbus in the second year, re-signed for three years, $9.8 million
Martin Hanzal Phoenix (1st round, 17th in 2005)
  • Prior to 2010-11, signed for two years, $3.6 million
  • After scoring a career 16 goals in the first year, signed a five-year, $15.5 million extension
Nick Foligno Ottawa/Columbus (1st round, 28th in 2006)
  • Prior to 2010-11, signed for two years, $2.4 million
  • After scoring 29 goals and 81 points over the two seasons, re-signed for three years, $9.25 million
Steve Downie Philadelphia/Tampa Bay/Colorado (1sr round, 29th in 2005)
  • Prior to 2010-11, signed for two years, $3.7 million
  • After piling up 72 points and 308 penalty minutes over the two seasons, re-signed for two years, $5.3 million

The Season That Lies Ahead
I find Backlund to be a most interesting situation. He has the potential to be the team's top centre for years to come. It would also not shock anyone if he ends up settling into a third line role. I also wouldn't wager my house that he doesn't end up out of the NHL and back playing for hometown Vasteras in Sweden in a few years.
That said, I feel Backlund will continue on the tangent he established in 2012-13 and as his game continues to round into form at both ends of the ice and he grows in confidence offensively, any dollars he felt he may have left on the bargaining table with yesterday's short-term contract will be more than made up for in in two years time.

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