Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Replacing Backlund: Handicapping the List of Candidates

The Mikael Backlund injury watch is starting to intensify. Big time.

Today is day five of Calgary Flames training camp and the team's 25-year-old has yet to set foot on the ice. Nursing what's been described as an abdominal strain suffered while training in Sweden, the lack of news on the Backlund front is now being interpreted as bad news.

"I'm worried," confessed coach Bob Hartley on Monday, when talking about the ongoing absence of his No. 1 centre.

So, what if Backlund isn't healthy to start the season? Let's not forget, this is not the old Backlund, this is the new and improved version, who played like one of the NHL's elite players for the final two-thirds of last season. As I discussed at length earlier in the summer in this piece, another season from the 2008 first round pick like the one he just completed and Backlund could very well be looking at a long-term pact averaging $5 million per year next summer. He's about to enter the final year of a two-year deal, which will see him earn a modest $1.5 million in 2014-15.

Don't kid yourself, Backlund's absence for a significant length of time this year would leave the Flames with a huge void to the extent that one fan Tweeted yesterday -- in response to the Backlund speculation, "I hope Connor McDavid likes white cowboy hats."

In sports, there's an expression: Injury equals opportunity. But for whom? Well, that's what I'm debating today. If you include Lance Bouma as a centre and I originally projected him as opening the season as the pivot on the fourth line, then the Flames depth chart up the middle -- less Backlund, now consists of Sean Monahan, Matt Stajan and Bouma.

For the purpose of this article, let's assume Backlund ends up missing at least a couple weeks of the regular season. This isn't that far-fetched of a possible outcome considering he hasn't skated yet, the delicate nature of abdominal strains (that can end up being sports hernias requiring surgery) and the reality that the NHL season gets going for real in two weeks.

Below are nine candidates that could conceivably fill in for Backlund at centre. Each brings a little something different to the table. Depending on who it is, you could bump the other three centres up a rung and make the job opening a fourth line centre role. Or, you can keep the other three where they're currently slotted and insert someone straight into Backlund's spot on the top line. Although there are only a couple players that would have the overall game to be cast even temporarily as the club's No. 1 centre.

Now admittedly, I'm not working with much of a sample size given training camp just got underway and there's only been two split-squad pres-season games. But, as we stand today based on what I've seen and heard, here is how I'd handicap the race to fill in at centre.

Nine Candidates to Replace Mikael Backlund

Markus Granlund: 2 to 1 

Why it Would Make Sense - This guy can flat-out play. At rookie camp, he looked a level above the other prospects and he left the impression he could step right into an NHL line-up. He's coming off a superb season in the AHL, in which 25 goals in 52 games put him among the league's leading goal scorers and that was as a rookie. While last year was Granlund's first year in North America, his experience playing against men started before that. Beginning at age 18, he played two seasons in the top Finnish league for HIFK Helsinki. Granlund does everything well offensively and like so many Finns, his defensive game is very sound also. Need him to kill a penalty? No problem. Looked fine in a short stint with Calgary last year and could step right into a top six role this year.

Joe Colborne4 to 1

Why it Would Make Sense - Colborne's natural position is centre. In fact, of the Flames regular centres last year, Colborne led the team with a face-off winning percentage of 48.5. The former first round pick played centre most of last year before Hartley decided to try him at right wing. Worth noting is he wasn't moved because he wasn't playing centre just fine, it was done to give Colborne more ice time. As you may recall for the early part of the season, Colborne was competing with Backlund for playing time. As they took turns getting hot, the other was dropped to the fourth line centre role. In the second half when Backlund took off and quickly shot up the depth chart, Hartley moved Colborne to the wing to get him off the fourth line. Without issue, Colborne could easily slide back to centre as he did Saturday night, when he looked good operating with Johnny Gaudreau and Devin Setoguchi on his wings.

Max Reinhart: 5 to 1

Why it Would Make Sense - Of the club's top prospects, Reinhart has the most pro experience (in North America) having spent the last two seasons in the AHL with Abbotsford. What you have to like about Reinhart is he just continues to get better and play with more assertiveness and confidence. His slick set-up of TJ Brodie's goal on Sunday night was just one example. His first year with the Heat was a struggle. He was 7-14-21 in 67 games and was an appalling minus-26. Last year, however, was a 180 degree turnaround for Reinhart, who in one less game went 21-42-63 to lead the team in scoring. He also finished plus-6. At 6-foot-1, 190 pounds, Reinhart has the size and grit to step right into a bottom six role. While he played left-wing last year, he was a centre his whole career prior to that. I have him making the team anyway as an extra forward so he could easily slide down into the starting 12.

Sam Bennett: 8 to 1

Why it Would Make Sense - His raw skills offensively may be second only to Gaudreau and he can back it up with a 6-foot-1, 180 pound frame, which makes him a tough player on the ice to handle as he is just as strong and sturdy as he is shifty. As the 4th overall pick in last year's NHL draft, stepping directly into the Flames line-up would not be unprecedented. We all know what Monahan accomplished last year after being selected 6th overall in 2013. Bennett is driven and the needle on his compete metre is at its maximum whenever he's on the ice. After showcasing himself nicely in Penticton, he's been limited in Flames camp so far due to a groin injury but there's still plenty of time for him to get going, find his way into some exhibition games, and potentially open up the season with the Flames. And like Monahan a year ago, if Bennett is Calgary's leading scorer after nine games and has proven he can play in the NHL, your decision of whether or not to return him to the OHL ends up being made for you. At that point, the only decision that would remain is what will his new 'traditional' jersey number become?

Paul Byron: 12 to 1

Why it Would Make Sense - Despite being undersized, the kid brings it every night, there's no denying that. His stature puts limitations on his game but to his credit, he plays bigger than he is, never afraid to get in aggressively on the forecheck and play with an edge. While Byron has played mainly on the wing lately, he has also played plenty of centre in his career so could slot into an open centre job without much issue. Byron also brings versatility. He can play with two skilled guys in a top six role or line up with a couple more abrasive-types in a fourth line role. If everyone is healthy, I had Byron slotted in as the 13th forward and able to fill in at multiple positions. If a fill-in is, indeed required, then voila, Byron could be your guy.

Corban Knight16 to 1

Why it Would Make Sense - At 24, he's one of the older options. Played four full years of college at North Dakota before spending most of last season, his first as a pro, with Abbotsford where he had a nice year going 18-26-44 in 70 games. He also got into seven games with the Flames. What you get with Knight is a guy that is very good at face-offs. Knight looks at that area as one of his specialties. With faceoffs not an overall strength of the Flames by any means and given the team's propensity to play in tight games, Knight would give the team a nice option to take an important face-off in the Calgary end late in a game. Also, being one of the few right-handed shooters on the team, he would present a different look for the centres and perhaps a coveted one given the skilled players the Flames will potentially have on left wing.

Bill Arnold: 20 to 1

Why it Would Make Sense - I've talked to college hockey pundits, who say Arnold was the best defensive forward in the country last year. There's the natural chemistry with Gaudreau, obviously, from their time as linemates at Boston College, but I see Arnold's role as different than Gaudreau's at the NHL level. In fact, I see him more as Matt Stajan-light, responsible in his own end, good at the face-off dot, etc. Also, considering how counted upon Backlund is for his penalty killing, Arnold would be a perfect substitute as the PK is very much Arnold's forte. In Penticton, whenever the Flames were in a 5-on-3 situation against, it was Arnold that Ryan Huska would deploy as the lone forward. While the 22-year-old may not have the same brand name cachet as some of the Flames more talked-about prospects, what you do get is a guy that plays a 200-foot game, is mature, and someone, who isn't going to hurt you.

Mathieu Tousignant: 25 to 1

Why it Would Make Sense - Agitator, aggravator, shit disturber... Whichever adjective you choose, you can't go wrong in describing the sandpaper-like qualities the fiery Quebec native brings to the line-up. Tousignant is not a prospect in the traditional sense in the slightest. He turns 25 in November. He's already spent five seasons bouncing between the AHL and ECHL. He's never played an NHL game. Make no mistake, he's not in the line-up for his offence. He's there to be a pest -- all shift, every shift, whether that's a chop to the back of the knee, a face wash, or laying someone out with a hard hit. He brings a lot of attributes that you just know the Flames management team relishes and we all know Calgary hasn't had much of for a very long time. Tousignant centred Brian McGrattan and Lance Bouma the other night in Edmonton. Was that a possible sneak preview to where he might be playing come October? He's a long shot, for sure, but hearing Hartley praise him the other day, you know he's a fan so I wouldn't rule him out as long as he's in camp.

Read more about Tousignant in good pieces written yesterday by both Scott Cruickshank (Calgary Herald) and Randy Sportak (Calgary Sun).

Turner Elson: 100 to 1

Why it Would Make Sense - He really played well in Penticton, bringing a ton of energy and speed to the line-up. His career hit a blip last season when he struggled to get meaningful playing time from Troy Ward in Abbotsford and produced just three points in 37 games before being demoted to the ECHL, where he went 5-10-15 over the final 18 games and was 7-4-11 in 21 playoff games as the Aces won the championship. Elson speaks highly of that experience with Alaska and how it rejuvenated his game and it's noticeable. In Penticton as well as in main camp so far, Elson has been a real pleasant surprise. If the Flames don't want to rush any of their grade 'A' prospects and also want to keep the likes of Byron and Colborne on the wings, perhaps Elson gets a shot. He wouldn't be the long term solution and the odds of this happening are pretty steep but you never know.

Stay Tuned for the Conclusion

It may end up coming down to how much time Backlund is expected to miss -- if he ends up missing time. If it looks like he'll only miss two weeks of the regular season, then you're looking at more of a temporary fill-in. In that scenario, instead of disrupting plans the team may already have for Colborne as a right-winger, perhaps they go with a Reinhart as a short-term fill-in.

However, if Backlund's injury turns into a longer term thing, then that changes things. Now you're likely looking for someone with higher upside offensively on a team that is going to need scoring by committee this season. In that scenario, you're looking at Granlund or shifting Colborne to the middle to open up a full-time role on the wing for a player like Gaudreau.

As you can see, the Flames have plenty of options if needed but however they patch up the hole, know that there is still damage below the surface that the club won't be able to fully cover up. Of the three players I've said Calgary cannot afford to lose to a long term injury, Backlund is one of them along with Mark Giordano and TJ Brodie.

But as the Connor McDavid evangelists will point out, if the rebuilding Flames are going to suffer injuries to key players, this isn't a bad season for that to happen.


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  1. My two cents...
    I believe Bouma will play in the wing. That would open another spot (not counting an extra that will not dress).
    First spot goes to Colborne. I think Hartley was already thinking in move him back to centre to open a spot to Gaudreau.
    My favorite to the second spot would be Granlund. However, in the first pre season game of the year Max played better.
    But still too early. Let's see what is going to happen.
    Do you think it makes sense?

    1. If three prospects make the team due to injury, etc., I think Reinhart, Gaudreau and Granlund could be the three. Reinhart isn't as flashy but again last night vs. Arizona, makes lots of smart, simple plays. He's playing with new-found confidence and assertiveness after his breakout season last year in Abbotsford.