Why are the Flames sending Backlund to Abbotsford?

c'mon Brent - just play me and next time I'll celebrate with "The Teemu"

 
Today the Flames announced that they'll be sending Mikael Backlund down from the big club to Abbotsford of the AHL.  Backlund has been a healthy scratch since December 18th.

With 4 goals and 4 assists in 32 games, Backlund hasn't exactly been lighting up the traditional NHL stat line, but has been +4 on the season.  Obviously Brent Sutter and interim GM Jay Feaster felt he wasn't bringing enough to the Flames squad and are backed up in that assertion by the Flames recent winning streak with Backlund in street clothes.

But as we all know here at M&G, the traditional stat line doesn't tell the whole story.  In fact, the Flames appear to be making a huge mistake by sending Backlund down to the Heat.  Not only are they wasting a year of his entry level contract, but he's actually holding his own as a third line player at an age when NHL forwards typically develop the fastest.  Denying him time in the NHL is likely hurting his development.

More after the jump.....

Backlund has played 55 games with the Flames over the past two seasons and has been a solid possession player facing 3rd line competition.

Click on the table if you'd like to see it in larger form.  Info is from BehindtheNet.ca

Backlund_eval_medium

Although he is facing relatively weak competition and definitely getting the easiest zone starts of any center on the Flames roster, Backlund is outplaying his competition.  His Corsi rate is fantastic, and his scoring differential shows that the results are following the dominance in possession.  His Relative +/- was the best among Flames centers last year and 2nd best this season. 

While Backlund seems to have regressed in his scoring rate, that can at least be partially explained by a PDO drop of 39 points from last season.  He got a few lucky bounces last year and has had poor puck luck this season.

There has been some discussion on the topic that Backlund may be carried by his linemates.  Here are Backlund's top winger combinations so far this year according to DobberHockey.com

  1. Glencross & Morrison
  2. Bourque & Hagman
  3. Hagman & Moss
  4. Bourque & Glencross
  5. Glencross & Jackman

While all six of those players are solid possession-wise and conscious defenders, none aside from Bourque would be considered a top 6 offensive player on most teams in the NHL.

Backland's Corsi is better than any of his linemates but his points are lower by 0.2-0.5 per 60 minutes.  Regardless, it's not like he's been paired with a couple superstars and is riding their coat tails.

Critics could point to the fact that the team is forced to shield Backlund by giving him the easier matchups and cushy zone starts.  This makes sense as it could force coach Sutter to feed other lines into situations that are less than advantageous.  That said, if the Flames are forced into sheltering a rookie's minutes, at least they know he is consistently outplaying his matchups.  Over time he will need to graduate to more difficult minutes, but he hasn't even played a full NHL season yet.  Most players start to take on tough minutes as their careers progress, not immediately.

The typical high draft pick usually needs to spend a few years in the AHL, over in a European league or some other development experience between the time they're drafted and when they crack an NHL squad.  Very few make the leap at the age of 18.  But eventually, they need the challenge and the experience at the big club to put the finishing touches on their development.  Backlund is holding his own and needs time against the best in the world if he's to continue developing.  At the age of 21, it's time to give him a prolonged shot at being a regular NHL player.

If the Flames can't manage one rookie forward on their roster, there isn't much hope that trading some of their established veterans for prospects would be a viable strategy for rebuilding an aging squad.

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