February 25 2017 10:00AM
Through three quarters of the season, it's tough to argue against Mikael Backlund being Calgary's most valuable player. In the midst of a career season, Backlund will be eligible for a contract extension starting July 1 and there's plenty to suggest the Flames should lock him up as soon as they can. While it's still a little ways out, I think we can start to get a pretty good picture of what Backlund's next deal might look like.
Currently Backlund is on a sweetheart deal that counts $3.575 million against Calgary's salary cap and expires at the end of next season. Because his offensive totals were relatively low compared to his overall impact, the Flames were able to lock Backlund up to that cap friendly three-year deal in the summer of 2015. This time around, Backlund's deal is going to be a little more substantial, so let's take a look at why.
Backlund has been one of Calgary's most important forwards for quite some time now. Even though his offensive totals have only started to jump off the page in the last two seasons, he's been the team's best two-way centre for the better part of five years now. Facing the toughest opposition, shouldering immense defensive responsibility, and generating lots of offensive zone time have become frequent occurrences in Backlund's time as a regular NHLer.
Sure, there are players who have finished seasons with higher shot rates than Backlund over the last few years, but none of them have taken on the same time of defensive load. Likewise, a few players every year see even fewer offensive starts than he does, but none of those players generate zone time the way Backlund does. Plain and simple, Backlund has been Calgary's best play-driving forward over the last five years.
Backlund's impact also rubs off on teammates because the guy makes seemingly everyone who plays with him better. In what has now been branded the "Backlund Bump", we've seen a number of players benefit greatly from playing on his flank. That's best illustrated by comparing outputs over a full season playing with and without Backlund.
The trio above are representative of virtually everyone who spends time with Backlund. When playing on his line, results are strong and then they typically drop when removed. But, of course, most of this isn't new to most who frequent this site, so I'll move on to the really interesting stuff.
Assessing the market
For sake of this conversation, let's assume the Flames are going to try and lock Backlund up long term this summer. In that case, coming up with comparable contracts is best served by looking back to last summer and some of the deals signed in free agency.
Remember, Backlund's camp will be leveraging Calgary with what he might be able to get on the open market, so the most recent signings are the most pertinent. Below are some of the bigger deals signed on July 1st of 2016.
Milan Lucic, Edmonton Oilers (7 years at $42 million, $6 million AAV)
Kyle Okposo, Buffalo Sabres (7 years at $42 million, $6 million AAV)
Loui Eriksson, Vancouver Canucks (6 years at $36 million, $6 million AAV)
David Backes, Boston Bruins (5 years at $30 million, $6 million AAV)
Frans Nielsen, Detroit Red Wings (6 years at $31.5 million, $5.25 million AAV)
The most fascinating name on that list to me is the final one. Nielsen and Backlund are extremely similar players, both in the way they play and the manner in which they're used. I honestly think Backlund's ballpark contract starts around Nielsen's and when I started to compare the two that became even more clear.
In comparing Backlund and Nielsen, I did an aggregate of the two years leading up to a new contract. For Nielsen, that would encompass the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 seasons while Backlund's aggregate is staggered one year later and includes this season currently in progress. Look at how eerily similar the outputs are on these guys.
It's also important to note the age difference between the two players. Nielsen's contract kicked in at the age of 32 while a new deal for Backlund would start when he's 29. That three year difference is significant because there's a good chance a Backlund extension would cover a greater number of productive seasons.
If I'm the Flames, I'm getting a deal done with Backlund this summer and I'm not letting it drag into next season. What's the point of waiting? Backlund is a key part of this team's present and future and I'd worry delaying an extension would possibly just make his price tag even more expensive. I honestly can't see a reason not to figure this out as close to July 1 as possible.
Using Nielsen's deal as a good gauge, I think Backlund's next deal is likely going to be in the six year range and somewhere between $5 and $6 million dollars per. I think there's a decent chance Backlund takes slightly less to stay in Calgary, but you also have to think he's looking at this next deal to set him up for good.
Because Nielsen is such a similar player, and because Backlund's next deal would kick in for him at a younger age, I don't think six years at $5.5 million is out of the realm of possibility. With the way he's trending, he'd likely get more on the open market.