The Calgary Flames took care of another piece of off-season business this week, coming to terms with restricted free agent forward Mikael Backlund. The 23 year old inked a one year deal worth $725,000. One segment of the Flames fan base celebrated the signing. The speedy youngster is back in the fold and the dollar figure could turn out to be a terrific bargain. The question is, why could he be had at such a bargain and why for only one season?
Why would a team like the Flames, so desperate for help in the centre position, be reluctant to commit to one of the few natural centers on the squad?
Many Backlund supporters will trot out advanced statistics in defending the young center. They will argue his ice time, situational play and linemates haven’t been conducive to putting up more impressive numbers. At the start of last season, many had Backlund penciled in as the team’s No. 1 centre. The scenario unfortunately never materialized as he suffered a broken finger before the start of the year. A second injury later in the season limited him to just 41 games. Still, in half a season Backlund mustered just four goals and 11 points.
No longer can the argument be made that Backlund is a youngster trying to find his way. There are many players his age, and younger who are making significant contributions to their respective club.
Size certainly shouldn’t be a factor any longer. In the press release announcing the new deal, Backlund is listed at 6-foot, 198 pounds. Not a behemoth, but by no means pint size.
Perhaps Backlund will never be a frontline scorer. He will be heading into just his fourth full season in the National Hockey League, but it seems more and more likely that a realistic expectation for him could be in the role of a checking centre. Plus/minus is often times a bit of a dodgy stat, but a minus-13 in the half season might suggest that Backlund isn’t all that adept at the defensive game either.
So where does that leave him?
Is he a legitimate option as a number one centre, or as a depth forward?
What seems clear is that the clock is ticking on Backlund with the current regime. In the same press release, Flames general manager Jay Feaster had the following quote: “As we have discussed with him, Mikael needs to work on his consistency and his focus in order to break through in a top six role and start to define his role on our team.” On the Big Show in an interview with Pat Steinberg and Bryn Griffiths, Backlund referred to this deal on a couple of occasions as being his “last chance.”
So who is right?
The fans who insist that all he needs is time and opportunity to finally show what he’s made of? Or, those who suggest that finding a spot in the lineup for Backlund is like pounding a square peg into a round hole?
Make no mistake, for all parties involved the best case scenario sees Backlund come to camp and seize one of the top two spots down the middle. The team is starved for depth at the pivot position, and he needs nothing more than to show significant gains. I’m certain both the team and the player would love to sit down next off season and negotiate a long term, big money deal based on a breakout season. Barring that however, you have to wonder if this might in fact be the final Flames contract that has Mikael Backlund’s name on it.