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Saturday, June 20, 2015

Eight From 80 Feet: Eight Thoughts on the Mikael Backlund Contract Extension

In the content feature I call Eight From 80 Feet, I share eight thoughts on the current goings-on with the Calgary Flames. This special edition is dedicated solely to the announcement Saturday that Mikael Backlund has signed a three-year contract extension worth a reported $10.725-million, which breaks down to an average annual value of $3.575-million.


1. Finally Some Depth at Centre

A couple weeks ago in this piece, I listed the Flames top three centres for every season going back to 1980. You need to go back over 20 years to find the last time the Flames top three centres were all home-grown. It was the 1994-95 season and the three were Joe Nieuwendyk, Robert Reichel and Joel Otto. It's no co-incidence that in the 20 seasons since, Calgary has made the playoffs only seven times. Yes folks, centre is that important of a position.

Unfortunately for Calgary, centre has been a position of weakness for decades. Oh, there have been plenty of experiments -- Dave Gagner, Andrew Cassels, Michael Nylander, Jeff Shantz, Rob Niedermayer, Chris Drury, Olli Jokinen twice and Brendan Morrison -- but without much success.

Sure, there were flashes of greatness from Marc Savard, decent years from Daymond Langkow and Craig Conroy was probably the best of the bunch. But for the most part, the Flames have struggled to acquire good centres and until recently had done a lousy job of drafting them. For example, Calgary drafted 10 centres in the first or second round of the NHL draft from 1993 to 2010 and Backlund was the only one that panned out. One in 18 years. Ouch.

Now with Sean Monahan in place and Sam Bennett a natural centre also, add in Backlund and Matt Stajan and the Flames finally have the type of depth up the middle they've been yearning for for so long. And now that they have it, it only makes sense to not mess with it.


2. Affordable Deal For the Flames

The way Backlund played the final two-thirds of 2013-14, he looked like a player on track to command north of $4-million if he could sustain that same high level of play for another full season. Heck, as I suggested in this piece a year ago, if you compared his peer group at that time in terms of ice time and responsibilities and what they were getting paid, his next contract could easily approach $5-million.

While that would have been excellent for Backlund personally, it's a figure that might have priced him out of reach for the Flames given he ultimately projects to be the team's third line centre behind Monahan and Bennett. In a salary cap system, you can only pay so much to someone cast in that role, regardless of their defensive responsibilities.

Then, the abdominal injury happened.

Backlund came into training camp last September having hurt himself training in the off-season. After trying unsuccessfully to play through it in October, he was shut down and surgery was booked.

He returned in January, had a solid year for jumping in half-way but by then, Monahan had taken the No. 1 centre job and ran with it. Backlund was at his best in the playoffs but his contributions did not translate into goals and assists.

The reality for Backlund is coming off a 52-game, 10-goal regular season and with one goal and two points in 11 playoff games, he simply did not put himself in a spot this summer to demand $4-million. The Flames reap the benefits by getting a superb two-way player entering his prime, who at age 26, 27, and 28, could very likely outperform his $3.5-million annual salary making him a very nice bargain.


3. Fair Deal for Backlund

For Backlund, it was about the best he could do. After making $1.5-million each of the past two seasons, a $2-million raise is pretty damn good. The potential is certainly there for him to earn more in the future but he just doesn't have the hours of service to get paid more right now. I think most recognize his abilities and the key yet often underappreciated role he plays, but at the end of the day, we've yet to see him be the player he's capable of being for a full season. However, with unrestricted free agency only a year away, there was no more time left to do another one or two-year  'show me' deal so a compromise was struck.

If Backlund continues on the trajectory he's on, he'll get rewarded nicely in three years time although staying healthy would sure help. The good news is broken finger, bad shoulder, sprained knee, abdominal tear -- there's no chronic injuries in his history, which leads you to believe it's been more bad luck with Backlund than a durability issue. The next three years should prove that that out as bad luck, just like good luck, is not sustainable.


4. Makes Others Better

Around these parts, there's a saying: Everything you can do, you can do better when you're on a line with Backlund.

Two guys that come to mind during the regular season were Lance Bouma and David Jones, who both just had their best seasons with the Flames and mostly while skating alongside the Flames No. 11.

I'll leave the charts and graphs to the analytics guys but to summarize, both players were much more effective when they were on the ice with Backlund than without him. How much better? A lot.

Consider Bouma entered the season with six goals in 121 career games and this year alone he notched 16 goals.

Jones also had a much better season with 14 goals. Jones also rediscovered his power forward game, which requires having the puck and being in the offensize zone, which happens more frequently when you're playing with a sound 200-foot player like Backlund.

In the playoffs, the Backlund benefactors were primarily Bennett and Joe Colborne. Combined, that impressive trio generated 70 shots on goal compared to 63 for the top line of Monahan, Jiri Hudler and Johnny Gaudreau.


5. Provides Versatility and Flexibility

Power play or penalty kill. Scoring role or checking role. First line, second line or third line. Backlund gives the Flames plenty of options and all of them good.

From a flexibility perspective, it gives the Flames the option of keeping Bennett on the wing for a while longer. While other top forward prospects like Emile Poirier develop in the minors, having all three of Bennett, Backlund and Monahan in the top six might be Calgary's best option in the short term.

It also gives the Flames insurance should they lose one of their young centres to a significant injury. Without Backlund, Calgary would be a Bennett shoulder re-injury away from Granlund, Colborne or Stajan taking over as the No. 2 centre.

On the versatility side, Backlund gives you a dependable face-off man, a very good penalty killer, and someone that thrives in the role of shutting down the opposition's top line. At the same time, he's not one dimensional either and you feel that offensively, there's still plenty more there we've yet to see and given more power play time and some talented wingers, he could be a key contributor to the offence also.


6. Excellent Re-Sale Value

Given the salary and term of this deal, it's hard to see this one ending badly for the Flames. If Backlund plays well and cements himself as a fixture in the top six (perhaps Bennett remains on the wing), the option to talk extension with Backlund is just two years away.

On the other hand, a 28-year-old two-way forward like Backlund would be a very attractive trade chip come 2017-18. If the situation is such that the team is able to move him or decides to move him -- either during that final season or in the summer prior to that, Calgary could very well end up getting a first round pick in exchange for him and that is the ideal circle of life for an NHL organization: Come in as a first round pick, play with the organization for eight seasons, then get traded away for another first round pick. Rinse, repeat.

Meanwhile, if Calgary has properly managed its succession planning, by then someone like Granlund has become Backlund-lite and is ready to assume Backlund's role on the team only at a cheaper salary. For cap teams with designs on staying competitive and avoiding rebuilds, that's just a part of doing business and is a necessary element of the annual and unavoidable turnover (see Patrick Sharp) that helps a club recapture the money needed to pay younger players due for raises.


7. Great Complementary Age 

Bennett just turned 19. Poirier is 20. Monahan turns 21 in October. Gaudreau turns 22 in August. Michael Ferland is 23.

The core of the Flames forwards is young and while that bodes well for the future, all your key players can't be young. At 26, Backlund is an ideal fit with the above group in that he's still very much on the right side of the old 'apex' and playing his best hockey, yet he brings a measure of responsibility, experience and leadership that those guys are still accruing.

Third in tenure with the team at 298 games, behind Mark Giordano (510) and Stajan (329), Backlund knows the organization inside out and is part of the fabric of the team. In fact, it would not be a surprise to see the Swede wear a letter at some point and continue to take on more of a leadership role.


8. Stability for the Organization

It's always a great thing for a hockey club and an excellent message for its other young prospects when a player -- especially a first round pick that's grown up in the organization, has success and sticks around for a while. There are so many players that come and go every season that guys like Backlund and Giordano that have been around through the good times and bad provide a necessary element of stability that resonates with the fans.

It should be noted that Backlund is also one of those guys, who is very active in the community and as a result has become a very recognizable player around town. In particular, he's actively involved with the ALS Society of Alberta -- attending events and promoting the cause. He also works with the Kids Cancer Care Foundation.

In short, Backlund is one those 'great players, but even better people' types, whose DNA fits perfectly with the culture that coach Bob Hartley and Giordano have established the last couple years and when it comes to that, you can never have enough good role models.


Final Word

This deal really does feel like the perfect compromise between club and player. Was there a 5-year, $17.5-million contract offer from the team available for Backlund? Possibly. Was there a 5-year, $22.5 million offer from Backlund available to the team? Possibly.

However, in the end, both sides agree to a deal that gives Backlund stability for now and opportunity to earn a big pay jump three years down the road. Meanwhile, it gives the Flames potentially some great value over the next three seasons should Backlund continue to perform as he has these past two years in particular.

Looks like the classic win-win to me. Three years from now, we'll check back and see if that's how it turned out.


By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Go there and do so now. It's just another way to be alerted to new Calgary Flames articles that I've written.

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2 comments:

  1. Good article but I think we'll see Arnold and not Granlund taking his spot in three years when he's traded.

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    1. That's another good candidate. I do think Bill Arnold gets to the NHL and while I had him pegged to be Stajan's eventual successor, Backlund isn't a bad comparable either.

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