Wednesday, August 02, 2017

From Nice-to-Have to Need-to-Have: My Take on Why Extending Backlund is Imperative

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In the off-season three years ago, I raised a lot of eyebrows when I suggested Mikael Backlund was in line to be a $5 million hockey player come his next contract.

At the time, he had one year remaining on his 2-year/$3 million deal and coming off an excellent season in which he really made an impact, my viewpoint was the Flames were better off extending him right then and there and locking him up at a lower annual average value than what they would otherwise risk having to pay if they waited for him to put up another similar season.

As it turns out, they didn't get that extension done that summer, but as luck (or bad luck from Backlund's perspective) would have it, injuries took a 30-game bite out of the Swede's 2014-15 season and also inflicted a financial toll on what he could command. On June 20, 2015, general manager Brad Treliving re-signed the centre to a thrifty three-year deal at an annual average value of $3.575 million.

Well, Backlund's going to get his $5 million now -- and then some.

This summer, the team is in an identical spot as three years ago with Backlund again under contract for one more year. With July 1 having passed, Calgary is again in a position where they have the ability to sign him to an extension at any point, should they choose to pursue that.

But there's one major difference and I mean major difference.

Three years ago, the pressure point Treliving was up against was the risk of a more expensive deal had the team waited to re-sign him as they did.

This time, the threat looming just 11 months away is unrestricted free agency.

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Decade of Development

To his credit, Backlund has done an excellent job of evolving from a nice-to-have player a few years ago to a need-to-have player. Drafted 24th overall in 2007, he has become the player the Flames always hoped they were getting.

Considering the high level of hockey he has played the last few seasons -- his offensive game blossoming to complement his already-stellar defensive game -- it's imperative Calgary gets an extension done and keeps this critical piece in the fold for many years to come.

With the top five on defence locked up for the next three years and Calgary's young forward group gaining valuable experience every season, the Flames are entering their so-called 'window to win'. The guy up front that props that window open and allows the cool breeze to catch this team's sails is Backlund.

Not an old guy at age 28, he is a necessary, sage presence who has had and will continue to provide immeasurable value. Just think about the youth that makes up two-thirds of the forward group this club could be deploying in the upcoming seasons:
  • Michael Ferland, 25
  • Johnny Gaudreau, 23
  • Spencer Foo, 23
  • Sean Monahan, 22
  • Curtis Lazar, 22
  • Mark Jankowski, 22
  • Sam Bennett, 21
  • Matthew Tkachuk, 19

Next, think about what centre will look like for the Flames next summer after Matt Stajan's contract expires and he presumably either moves on or retires.

Sean Monahan, Sam Bennett perhaps, Mark Jankowski, maybe Curtis Lazar. Whatever the configuration, the startling reality is the senior member of that foursome would be Jankowski. Try and wrap your head around that.

Whether or not fans put any stock in the benefit of veteran guys in a line-up to mentor young men finding their way in the league -- especially at centre with the responsibilities and pressures that come with that position -- I can tell you that players themselves certainly do. I've had that conversation with the team's younger players numerous times. Backlund's time with the organization, his knowledge of the league, his own career experiences, his character, these are all invaluable attributes.


Depth Down the Middle

A legitimate No. 2 centre playing the best hockey of his life, Backlund is a key ingredient for this team. Heck, last year in authoring a career-best 22 goals and 53 points, he was more like a No. 1 centre dressed up as a No. 2.

Paired with Sean Monahan, he helps form a vital 1-2 punch up the middle that allows the Flames to keep up with the other Pacific Division heavyweights where Anaheim boasts Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler, the Sharks deploy Joe Pavelski and Joe Thornton, the Kings come at you with Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter and the Oilers pummel you with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

The road to the Stanley Cup final runs through California, Northern Alberta, or both. There's no getting around it. Re-calculate? Sorry. To navigate through that gauntlet, Calgary is going to need Backlund's line with Matthew Tkachuk and Michael Frolik to be mmm, mmm, good.

Want proof of Backlund's influence on the play of others? Just look at the impact he had on Lance Bouma, Joe Colborne and Sam Bennett. For all three, the best hockey of their career has come while playing alongside Backlund. It's no coincidence and considering the nice bump in pay the first two received right afterwards, I sure hope Backlund gets paid a commission.

Being able to make other players better. That's what he does and it's the ultimate praise for an athlete.

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All Hail the Anti-Russell

Perhaps most impressively though is this is one player where instead of bickering back and forth ad nauseum, both the new-school analytics enthusiasts and the old-school eye-test traditionalists seem to agree on.

For real.

He's the polar opposite of Kris Russell. With Backlund, both sides are constantly singing his praises as if they're at a Karaoke Bar, arms locked, belting out I Got You Babe.

Of course, this hasn't always been the case. The latter took a while to come around on No. 11, but these days you'd have a better chance of finding a Brennan Evans game-worn jersey than a fan that doesn't appreciate what Backlund brings to the line-up every night.

As for how good his advanced stats are, let's take a quick look. But first, a disclaimer. Know that there are much deeper dives out there on Backlund and I'm only skimming the surface of this new realm that the NHL refers to as 'enhanced stats' and are now maintained on the league website.

There are two numbers that I'm going to reference:

1. Zone Starts (ZS%)

Zone starts refers to the percentage of time at even-strength that a player is on the ice for a face-off in the offensive zone. e.g. If every time you're on the ice for a face-off, you're in the offensive zone, your zone start percentage would be 100 percent. This is a non-subjective metric and I think it's informative as I view as a great way to measure a coach's trust in a particular player, or line, or D pairing.
 
As you probably have observed, a coach will often put out his better defensive players for own-zone face-offs, unless he can't because of an icing. The lower a player's ZS%, that's an indicator that you are one of those relied upon guys frequently sent over the boards to be on the ice and/or take the draw in those sometimes crucial defensive zone face-off situations.

2. Shot Attempts Percentage (SAT%)

Rather than relying solely on goals, which are not that common, the next metric one level down is measuring shot attempts, as that is what leads to goals. Since shot attempts are far more frequent, it allows you to paint a better picture of a player or line's effectiveness in terms of carrying the play.

Identified by the NHL as SAT%, but also known as Corsi, this number will reflect the ratio of shot attempts for versus shot attempts against while that player is on the ice at even-strength. This is also referred to as possession with the premise being the more times you're shooting the puck, it reflects how much more often you are in possession of the puck.

The additional qualifier to SAT that I like to use is 'Close'. Given there is a natural tendency for teams to play a different style of game if they are behind by a couple goals (more aggressive offensively) versus ahead (sit back and protect the lead), SAT% Close only counts shot attempts in game situations where the game is a one-goal lead or tied in the first two periods, or tied in the third period.


So What Does It Mean?

With those two metrics in mind (and apologies to those that know this stuff inside out or those that don't care!) only three players last year registered a SAT% Close of  > 52% while also having a zone start percentage of < 36%.
  • LW Matthew Tkachuk CGY, 53.62 SAT% Close, 35.02 ZS%
  • C Mikael Backlund CGY, 53.24 SAT% Close, 35.50 ZS%
  • C Ryan Kesler ANA, 53.17 SAT% Close, 33.69 ZS%

What that's saying is Backlund gets on the ice in own end a lot, like twice as often as he gets the benefit of starting in the offensive zone. Yet it doesn't matter. Despite that 150-foot disadvantage, his line pushes the puck up the ice regularly and territorially will take the play to the opposing line.

And when I say that you can take a far deeper dive into this stuff. That's when you start looking closely at things like at the calibre of players Backlund's line is out against and as you know, it's often the No. 1 line on the other team. That makes these numbers pop even more.

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Final Word

I realize I'm not breaking any news here in declaring that Backlund is a player the Flames need to be re-signing.

On the ice, he was third in team scoring, not that far behind $6-million-plus first liners Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. Meanwhile, he also finished fourth in voting for the 2016-17 Selke trophy and on my ballot, I had him No. 2 behind Ryan Kesler. He's the epitome of the 200-foot player.

Off the ice, he was the PHWA Calgary Chapter's nominee for the Masterton trophy for best exemplifying the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey. He tirelessly gives back to the community with three charities in particular he supports being Special Olympics, Kids Cancer Care and the ALS Society. This isn't just a quality player, he's a quality person.

There is a lot to like and it's why it was no surprise to hear Treliving mention a few times this summer that he's been in touch with Backlund's agent and that they will be discussing an extension.

What would an extension look like? I'll save that for my own deeper dive to be done on another day, but I'd expect it would come in between $5 and $6 million with it closer to the latter. For term, five years is my guess. Monahan has six years remaining so I'd expect a new Backlund deal to have a staggered expiry date and five years is more likely than seven.

Could he still end up leaving as a UFA next July 1? Possibly, but for the player, it's hard to imagine a better situation than the organization he's grown up in. For the team, it's equally difficult to envision anyone else shouldering all the heavy lifting Backlund takes on nightly as the team's shutdown centre.

And when you have in your possession one of those rare guys that while throwing blanks at the opposition's star players, can still put up 20-plus goals and 50-plus points, you don't part with them. These are the types of players you lock up and throw away the key.



By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Do so now! It's another way to be alerted to new stories I've written, other articles from my colleagues that I've enjoyed and I'll occasionally use that space to weigh in on the news of the day.

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14 comments:

  1. I enjoyed the article Darren until the narrow focused advanced stats portion reared its ugly head. I instantly felt the need to fall asleep out of boredom. Your writing is so much more engaging and enjoyable to read when it speaks to the reader with a focus on the human element and story telling.

    As for Backs, rather than focus on what he does for 60 minutes a few times a week on the ice, I'd like to mention something much more valuable with the other 23 hours of the day where he spends his time, that's work in the community. I've had the pleasure of meeting Mikael a number of times and he is without a doubt one of the most thoughtful, classy and generous individuals I've ever encountered. He supports a number of important initiatives in the community and is always generous with his time. I've actually seen him take leftover food after a Flames event to the homeless shelter, mustard seed etc. on his own on his way home late at night when others would be going home or too inconvenienced to do so. Like Gio, we are beyond fortunate to have Backs in our community, he has embraced Calgary whole heartedly and I hope people truly understand his contributions and selfless acts moreso than what he does on the ice.

    Wishing Mikael continued success both on (and more importantly) off the ice.

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    1. Oh man, was it really that bad? Sorry, that's eight paragraphs and 5 minutes of your life (plus the additional time you spent sleeping) that indeed, you will never get back.

      Oh well, you know my writing well enough to know that this section was not the norm. Sneaking it into the middle there was just like how I try to fool my kids by sneaking some protein powder in their raspberry smoothie.

      As for your testimonial, thanks for sharing and I completely agree with everything you said. This is an organization that likes having 'good people' on the roster too, it's a priority, which is another reason why I would be surprised to see him go. Contract talks would really need to hit a serious impasse for that to happen.

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    2. Don't listen to him man, I love your advanced stats and eye test balance. Great article. Hopefully we see Bennett and Monahan learn defense from Backs because two way centres are essential to cup wins imo.

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  2. I am sure Backlund's agent is going to "copy and paste" this post in an email and send it to Treliving. ;)

    Thanks for the 2 second explanation of Advanced Stats too. I never had the patience to really understand them.

    Backlund will be a future Selke winner and will someday carry an 'A' (and maybe a 'C'??) on his jersey someday.

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    1. I'm not an advanced stats writer, I'm an old story teller, but there is use to them so in moderation, I am trying to touch on it as relevant. I really dumbed it down to just 1% of what they're all about and probably insulted the hardcore fancy stats community in the process (although hopefully not) but glad I was able to convey a bit more about the basics. Fancy stats for beginners! (Of which admittedly, I'm still one as well.)

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  3. Another fantastic column Darren: good mix of advanced stats, hockey insights and clever writing.

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    1. Thank you. Might be the best single sentence I've read in a long time. Much appreciated!

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  4. How much does durability factor into contract negotiations do you think? He has showed what he can do when he's healthy and he has been trending to less time on the ir,but he's had some rough patches in the past that started to make him look injury prone. Do managers write that off as bad luck and water under the bridge or is there a secret advanced stat for that too?
    Thanks Darren, for some good hockey chat in August!

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    1. Durability issues are far enough in the rear-view mirror that I wouldn't expect that to have much of an impact on this next deal.

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  5. Far too many fans look at a (very minor) sprinkling of advanced stats like it's some kind of voodo. Invest a few quick minutes and any person of average intelligence could figure out the basics, and they need not delve any deeper than that.

    Anyway, I digress. What I wanted to say was "Thanks, this was another very good article."

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    1. There definitely is a level of panic that sets in and the toe I dip into the water in this piece is the advanced starter kit at the very most. Anyway, it's an evolution and it's one very much in progress.

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  6. Darren

    It has seemed throughout Mikael's career with the Flames there have been pundits who have polarized in their thoughts of Mikael.
    I think it was in part this love him and hate him opinions much of it a part of the back and forth of the Fan 960 broadcasts that caused you to delve so much into analytics to justify your opinion of why the Flames should keep Mikael.

    An avid Flames fan, I have watched the ebb and flow of his career and seen him become an amazing all round player. One as you describe makes other players around him much better.

    I don't think you need to over sell Mikael, I think that looking at his play you can say the Flames are much better with him than without him. But I can also see that looking at Mikael through the lens of analytics you can also demonstrate the integral part Mikael plays.

    If I were the Flames who are in the win now mode it's a no brainer to get him signed to a long term deal asap

    Great work as always, looking forward to your next article

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    1. Good points made. Thanks for the note and the kind feedback.

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  7. Great article top to bottom, although I think zone starts are a bit of an exaggerated stat considering how few shifts are actually associated with faceoffs. I use it here and there too though.

    Only disagreement, if you even want to call it anything other than a nitpick, I have is that Bennett played his best hockey with Backlund. He played his best hockey with Frolik, whether that was centering Gaudreau and Frolik or playing LW with Backlund and Frolik. I actually think Backlund and Tkachuk can carry a line together, and Bennett / Frolik should be another forward pair. But it's a total tangent I've gone off on.

    Ideally, we sign Backlund to a front-loaded 3.5M x 8 years and then he gets "equipment allergies" when he wants to retire... he's our Marian Hossa in some ways.

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