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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Is Mikael Backlund a $5 Million Player?

A year from now with the NHL salary cap at let's say $72 million, what would you pay a free agent with these credentials?
  • No. 1 centre
  • Sound defensively, often facing an opponent’s top line
  • 26 years old
  • Coming off a 25-goal season
  • Led forwards on his team in ice time
  • Alternate captain
  • Excellent penalty killer

That’s a pretty good resume and for that package in today's lucrative NHL, I’d argue you’re easily going to be in the vicinity of $5-million/year over the duration of a long term contract.

Why then, if you insert the name Mikael Backlund into the above example, do the guffaws suddenly come out? For me, it shows that despite a breakthrough season, there’s still a sizable divide between Backlund evangelists and skeptics.

Add in the World Championships where he had five goals and these past six months we’ve watched Backlund play the finest hockey of his career, no question. Finally the young Swede has looked like the player the Flames thought they were getting when – as the No. 2 ranked European skater, they made Backlund the 24th overall pick in the 2007 NHL draft.

I recently suggested on Twitter that while Backlund still has one year to go on his current 2-year/$3-million deal, Calgary General Manager Brad Treliving would be wise to offer Backlund a contract extension this summer.

My rationale is if you extend him right now while the “it’s only been one good year” caveat can still be played, there could be savings to be had. Maybe you’re talking a contract in the neighbourhood of $3.5-million/year over the next 4-5 seasons. My argument is if they wait and Backlund repeats next season how he played this past year from late November through April, then Calgary will likely need to dole out $5-million/year instead.

Taking a Closer Look: The Good Mikael Backlund

The sample size for Backlund advocates last season started at a single game -- Nov. 30 in Los Angeles, when he played over 19 minutes and helped set up the winning goal from Mike Cammalleri in the final minute. That sample size then grew to a week, then two weeks, then a month, then two months. Eventually, a 'hot stretch' morphed into a 'breakout year' that ended up lasting the final two-thirds of the season.

During this stretch in which Backlund played 52 games, he racked up 16 goals, 16 assists, 3 SHG, was +10, and averaged 20:22 in ice time.

Extrapolate that over an 82-game season and that becomes an impressive year -- 25 goals, 50 points, +16. By last year’s standards, that would have put him second in goals to Mike Cammalleri (26), 2nd in points to Jiri Hudler (54), and 1st in plus/minus by a longshot (Paul Byron, +6).

For context, this is not the 1980s any more. Only 42 players in the NHL last season scored more than 25 goals.

In validating for myself that Backlund could, indeed, be a $5-million player by next summer, there were six factors I took into consideration:

Factor 1:  Age

On July 1, 2015 when Backlund’s current contract expires, he will be 26 years old and just entering his prime. He will be one year away from when he’s eligible to become an unrestricted free agent. Any long-term contract offered by the Flames must take into consideration what Backlund would be able to fetch on the open market if he were to go that route. You essentially are buying out a bunch of his UFA years and that comes at a heightened price tag.

The comparable of Kyle Turris was mentioned to me. Also a centre, Turris was drafted third overall in that same 2007 draft.  Two summers ago, Ottawa signed him to a five-year contract extension that averaged $3.5 million annually. What makes the Turris situation different from Backlund is at the time he signed, Turris was 23 and still four years away from being a UFA. Thus, a majority of that contract was covering off years in which he would have been under club control anyway as a restricted free agent. That would have impacted the dollars he was offered.

For age comparables, looking back at one’s draft class is a great place to start. Here are some other centres taken in the first round of 2007 and 2008 and where they’re at contract-wise:

2007

No. 9 – C Logan Couture, SJ
  • On June 18, 2013, with one year left on a 2-year/$5.75-million contract, signed a 5-year/$30-million extension ($6M cap hit) that takes effect in 2014-15
  • In 2013-14 was 23-30-53 in 65 gm

    No. 13 – C Lars Eller, Mtl
    • Is an RFA this summer after finishing a 2-year/$2.625-million contract.
    • In 2013-14 was 12-14-26 in 77 gm

    2008

    No. 7  - C Colin Wilson, Nsh
    • Has one year remaining on a 3-year/$6-million contract.
    • In 2013-14, was 11-22-33 in 81 games

      No. 9 – C Josh Bailey, NYI
      • On July 15, 2013, signed a 5-year/$16.5-million contract ($3.3M cap hit)
      • In 2013-14 was 8-30-38 in 77 gm

        No. 10 – C Cody Hodgson, Buf
        • On Sept. 11, 2013, signed a 6-year/$25.5-million contract ($4.25M cap hit)
        • In 2013-14 was 20-24-44 in 72 gm

          No. 26 – C Tyler Ennis, Buf
          • Is an RFA this summer after finishing a 2-year/$5.625-million contract.
          • In 2013-14 was 21-22-43 in 80 gm

          I wouldn’t put Backlund on the same level as Logan Couture and nor am I suggesting Backlund should make Couture-like money of $6 million. But if he were to have another stellar season like he just had, which is the premise of this article, I think you’d have to rate Backlund above the others including Cody Hodgson, originally drafted by Vancouver, who signed last summer with the Sabres for an average of $4.25 million.

          The Lars Eller situation will be a curious one to monitor. He’s in a place this summer with the expiry of a two-year deal that Backlund could find himself in next year. Eller’s regular season was up and down but he’s been good during Montreal’s run in the playoffs. I’d take Backlund over Eller but what he signs for will be intriguing as it will become a contract to compare against.

          Factor 2:  Inflation

          Just like the cost of milk, gas, and the McChicken, NHL salaries go up every year also. In 2009, Marian Hossa signed for an average cap hit of $5.3 million. Four years later, Stephen Weiss and Ryan Clowe – signing at the same age, got similar money. Same player? Not a chance. That’s inflation for you.

          Looking one more time at the Turris contract. Even if you were to ignore the age difference when they signed, and even if you were to argue that Turris is just as valuable of a player as Backlund, that still doesn’t equate to Backlund getting the same contract three years later. Inflation alone would dive that contract in excess of $4 million.

          Factor 3: Veteran Leader

          With the changes made at last year’s trade deadline, the changes expected this summer with veteran UFAs leaving town, and the youth movement that could occur again next summer, Backlund’s role on the Flames is evolving into that of a veteran leader.

          This past year Backlund served as an alternate captain a few times when injuries to the likes of Curtis Glencross, Matt Stajan and Mike Cammalleri created an opportunity. He recently wore an ‘A’ for Team Sweden at the World Championships. You know a permanently stitched-on letter is forthcoming, it’s just a matter of when. It could even be this year as part of a group of rotating alternate captains with Glencross and Stajan. Regardless, you pay a little extra for experience like that.

          Factor 4: Logging Big Minutes

          If you’re averaging over 20 minutes per night as a forward, you are a key cog on any hockey team. During that 52-game stretch for Backlund, he averaged 20:22. Those weren’t easy minutes either – often matching up against the No. 1 lines on the opposition and killing a ton of penalties.

          Only 20 forwards in the league averaged more ice time last season than Backlund during that stretch and it’s a pretty impressive list with a lot of star power and hefty salaries. Here's that list, which includes average ice time from last season along with their 2014-15 salary.

          1. Sidney Crosby, PIT, 21:58, $12M
          2. Ryan Kesler, VAN, 21:48, $5M
          3. Ryan Getzlaf, ANA, 21:17, $8.75M
          4. John Tavares, NYI, 21:14, $6M
          5. James van Riemsdyk, TOR, 21:03, $4.5M
          6. Tyler Bozak, TOR, 20:56, $4M
          7. Martin St. Louis, NYR, 20:56, $5M
          8. Mikko Koivu, MIN, 20:56, $5.4M
          9. Anze Kopitar, LAK, 20:53, $7.5M
          10. Henrik Sedin, VAN, 20:40, $7M
          11. Phil Kessel, TOR, 20:39, $10M
          12. Daniel Sedin, VAN, 20:36, $7M
          13. Henrik Zetterberg, DET, 20:33, $7.5M
          14. Alex Ovechkin, WSH, 20:32, $10M
          15. Patrick Marleau, SJS, 20:31, $7M
          16. Jonathan Toews, CHI, 20:28, $6.5M
          17. Claude Giroux, PHI, 20:26, $10M
          18. Kyle Okposo, NYI, 20:26, $3.5M
          19. Zach Parise, MIN, 20:25, $11M
          20. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, EDM, 20:23, $6M

          Of that group, the lowest 2014-15 salary is Kyle Okposo (on third year of a 5-year deal) at $3.5 million, and that’s still $2 million more than what Backlund will make next season. Only two others will make less than $5 million in 2014-15 – Leaf teammates Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk.

          Factor 5: Overall Skill Set

          The advanced stats community have lauded what Backlund has done on the ice for a long time now, probably a longer period than the traditional stats folks have taken notice. I won’t get into Backlund’s Corsi and all of that because I don’t know enough about what the numbers mean and what they reveal. But what I do I know is Backlund’s analytics seem to support what I see when I watch him in person and that is a guy that is out there to take many of the team’s important face-offs and whose team seems to have possession of the puck a lot of the time when he’s on the ice. Having these types of guys is critical for a team to have success.

          Factor 6: Flames Salary Structure

          For Backlund’s age in respect to free agency, for what he brings to the club, and also factoring in when other contracts were signed and the circumstances – UFA vs RFA, 3rd pro contract vs entry-level deal, etc., where would (or should) a Backlund deal logically fit into the existing Flames roster?

          Since we’re talking about what Backlund could sign for next summer, at that time – and based on today’s roster, the veteran make-up of the Flames for 2015-16 would still include:
          • 31-year-old David Jones and Jiri Hudler, both on the books for $4 million in the last year of long-term deals.
          • Matt Stajan, who would also be 31 at that point, would be owed $3.1 million.
          • Dennis Wideman would have another year left at $5.25 million.  

          In this context, paying your 26-year-old No. 1 centre $5 million over a long-term deal would seem to fit right into how the roster is structured.  In fact, you could even argue Backlund would be worthy of more.

          Note that I purposely did not compare a Backlund potential deal to Mark Giordano’s existing contract as we can all agree that at $4 million, the Flames captain and heart and soul is grossly underpaid for what he’s become and assuming he’s re-upped by the Flames prior to when he becomes a UFA at age 32 in the summer of 2016, expect him to be handsomely compensated.

          Weighing the Risk of Extending Backlund Right Now

          Someone asked me, “What if he goes back to being the old Mikael Backlund?” Well, there is that risk every time you sign a player to a long-term contract. For me, what I look at is what is the potential downside, what parts of his game could deteriorate?

          I see a player who has a variety of attributes in his game that are about as immune to slumps as you can get.  His defensive abilities and ability to shut down opposing top lines, that shouldn’t waver that much. His skills as a penalty killer and his leadership are two more areas that aren't going to suddenly go cold. If his offensive production dries up and he ends up a third-line player at 15-16 minutes per night then sure, you’ve probably over paid but with everything else you’re still getting from him, it will never be one of those unmovable disaster-type contracts. There are too many intangibles Backlund brings that are slump-proof for that to ever be a legitimate risk.

          Backlund is not of the same ilk as Jonathan Toews/Patrick Kane or Sidney Crosby/Evgeni Malkin.  Not even close. But what an organization can learn from the different contract situations facing Chicago and Pittsburgh is that locking in your key players to affordable deals can really help save money for the supporting cast down the road. Toews/Kane at a combined cap hit of $12.6 million has given the Blackhawks flexibility these past few years that Pittsburgh hasn’t had with Crosby/Malkin’s $18.2 million. It’s not a coincidence that Chicago goes deep into the playoffs seemingly every year while Pittsburgh was eliminated early once again this year.

          So How Does it End?

          While it’s all well and good for me to say the Flames should offer Backlund a contract extension this summer and make it in the 5-year/$18-million range, it takes two sides to agree to a deal. For all of the reasons mentioned above, Backlund -- gushing that new-found confidence, may realize the situation he is in and what those dollar figures could look like next summer if he has another huge year, and maybe doesn’t accept that kind of offer anyway.

          But if I’m the Flames GM, I’m at least going to make the offer and even if I need to sweeten the deal to $4-million/annually to get the extension inked right now, I’d still do it as it could turn out to be a very good deal for the organization in the long run and every dollar saved could end up being critical as the young prospects get older, get paid more, and that salary cap ceiling – as opposed to the floor, starts becoming a factor once again.

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