Training Camp Battles: Is Mattias Backman a Dallas diamond in the blueline rough?
Backman was the other Mattias in the Erik Cole trade. Could Backman be the next Mattias to crack the Dallas Stars 2016-2017 roster?
By this point, we all know what a steal Mattias Janmark was for the Dallas Stars in the Erik Cole trade. But less is known about the other Mattias. Former 2011 5th round pick of the Detroit Red Wings, Mattias Backman.
Like most people, I had no clue who Backman was. Detroit fans "liked that trade" at the time, which tells me they had no clue who Backman was either (or Janmark while we're at it).
Backman began his career with Sweden's Linkoping HC (Linkoping also being his birthplace). Nothing about his stat sheet screams "diamond in the rough". But he managed 20 points in 27 games his draft year in the SuperElit league, establishing a more defined role for himself, and prompting Detroit scout Hakan Andersson to flatter him with a comparison to Alexander Edler. Backman even earned the blessing of Mike Babcock, who explicitly penciled him into the 2014-2015 Red Wings lineup.
That same season Backman played 18 games for the Red Wing's AHL affiliate, was healthy scratched, traded, and then went back to Sweden. Yes that's the sound of the record scratching. What the heck happened?
It's important to note, first and foremost, that Detroit had some ridiculous depth that season. Veteran Nathan Paetsch, prospects Ryan Sproul, Xavier Quellet, and Alexei Marchenko made it hard for Backman to assume the role that garnered him so much trust from the organization. Was it justified? Well, either those guys are all super duper elite and will burn down Eastern Conference villages in short order, or Backman wasn't given a proper chance. Whatever the case, Backman stood out in Texas who themselves had plenty of blueline talent this year.
So you're saying there's a chance?
Hakan's comparison to Edler is curious, but not wholly inaccurate. Edler can play a more physical brand of hockey when called upon. Backman, despite being 6'3, doesn't provide that physicality. But both share the most important trait for a blueliner: the instinct of defensive economy.
As a quick aside, Backman doesn't project to provide a lot of offense, but he tallied 32 points this season. His shot isn't hard, or particularly fast but he does a good job of missing the nearby plexiglass (unlike Goligoski and Daley).
Going back to his defense, my favorite thing about Backman is that his play emphasizes what a premium skating is over red meat Rollerball smashing in defensive situations.
Like Edler, Backman has a tall, sinewy frame. And he uses it to great advantage. When Brent Severyn talks about "gap control", this is what he's talking about. Defensemen are always taught to squeeze opponents entering the zone near the boards. Backman doesn't need "nasty little crosschecks in the corners" here because he's effectively negated the need to go into the corner to begin with (forcing a bad decision by the Rampage player who shoots it aimlessly here). And he does it with speed, and lateral mobility. If you want to see the "this is what not to do" version, feel free to go back to the tape of Russell and Demers against St. Louis.
Jack Han uses a distinction between defensemen I like a lot more than "puck mover vs. stay at home": in this case, dynamic situation oriented defensemen versus static situation oriented defensemen. Shea Weber is a static oriented defensemen. Backman can't clear the crease, or shoot the puck over 100 mph from the point, but he excels in dynamic situations like so:
I like this play a lot even though it starts out horribly for Backman. His defensive partner Matt Mangene takes a shot that ricochets from the crease back toward the high slot. Backman tries to keep the play alive. Some defensemen might double down and fight for the puck despite being surrounded by two opponents (the traditional puck mover's instinct). Others might retreat completely and sacrifice possession (the stay at home instinct). It's a picture perfect example of a dynamic defensive situation requiring anticipation, reaction, vision, movement, et cetera. So how does Backman do?
He loses the puck in his effort to retrieve but quickly realizes he's got a man behind him. To reset he pushes backward but his eyes stay on the man still in front of him (since he's the one with possession). He successfully attempts the pokecheck while retreating, and quickly finds himself back toward center ice with both men now in front of him with possession of the puck. Anticipation? Check. Reaction? Check. Vision? Check. Movement? Check. Granted, he doesn't mark off the box labeled 'nasty little crosschecks in the corners', but for now, I think his swift lateral mobility and transitional hockey IQ will suffice.
Better yet, more than just scouting analysis, we have fancy(ish) stats on Backman's ability to influence positive events more than negative events relative to teammates. These were done for only a small portion of the season (hence why some names aren't there) but still:
Depth chart victim or depth charm valedictorian?
Backman ended up being one of Texas' best defensemen last season. With guys like Johns, Lindell, and Honka, that's saying something. On several occasions it was Backman who Derek Laxdal trusted to be the starting defensemen in 3 on 3 Overtime situations.
The biggest hurdle, in my opinion, has nothing to do with his play. He doesn't cheat, is good for and against the rush, and plays a stout game in both dynamic as well as static situations.
Instead the biggest hurdle will be the same thing that hurt him in Detroit: depth. Klingberg, Johns, Oduya, and Hamhuis are shoe ins. That leaves Lindell, Nemeth, Oleksiak, and Jordie to once again fight for two open spots. Backman left for Sweden once, and was looking to go back until Nill gave him a new contract. Some people say that it's the sign of a defensemen being "selfish", homesick, or maybe not interested in the "challenge" of the NHL. I say that's the sign of a man who knows what he's worth.
Backman will be 24 in October. He's paid his dues. Nill recognizes this. He wanted him in the Erik Cole trade and he wanted him to stay in Texas. I would argue that he's better than any of the current crop of young defensemen fighting for those spots: he's the most dynamic situation oriented defensemen on that list. It's a bold statement, I know. But one I believe has merit given his play. Granted, he still has to prove that. But as long as stays consistent and true to the game he employed last season, there's a good chance fans will stop excluding him when talking about Dallas' prospect depth.