Bruins

Haggerty: Right fit for Backes one of camp's lingering mysteries

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Haggerty: Right fit for Backes one of camp's lingering mysteries

BRIGHTON, Mass – With the start of Providence Bruins camp bearing down on Monday, the Boston Bruins know their NHL training camp numbers will be thinning out very shortly. That won’t change some pretty established forward combinations that head coach Bruce Cassidy has been working with throughout camp thus far.

Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron have skated together consistently as they obviously should as one of the league’s most lethal duos, and they’ve been teamed with rookie Anders Bjork at right wing pretty consistently through camp. David Krejci and David Pastrnak have also been linked together for every practice, game and drill since the 21-year-old Pastrnak signed his new six-year contract, and it’s been rookie Jake DeBrusk with them for most of camp.
Matt Beleskey finished the night in Detroit with Krejci and Pastrnak, and one begins to wonder if that’s where the established, 28-year-old Beleskey finds himself when the regular season begins.

That may or may not change after the young left winger was taken off their line in Saturday night’s preseason debacle in Detroit, but the point stands that Krejci and Pastrnak are expected to be on the same line to start the season. The same would seem to be the case with Riley Nash and Noel Acciari as fourth liners that really established themselves toward the end of last season, and have had Tim Schaller and Jesse Gabrielle cycle through as candidates.

That leaves the Bruins third line where the choices aren’t quite as easy for Cassidy, and where there are several different options for the Bruins coaching staff. Ryan Spooner and David Backes played together an ample amount of time last season, and would seem to be a good combo where their very different strengths can complement each other. Sean Kuraly and Backes would certainly give the Bruins a big, bruising, North/South third line dimension, and showed how effective they could be in the first round of the playoffs against the Ottawa Senators.

Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson got some early looks with Backes as well, but it seems a foregone conclusion he'll start in the AHL after getting dinged up earlier this week in preseason action. Backes hasn’t been shy about his preference to see where this combo could take them given his preference for a bit of old school smash-mouth hockey.

“It depends on usage, and that conversation has yet to be had. Are we going to be a checking line that’s going to get the matchup against the other team’s top line, or if we’re going to roll three lines that can responsibly play against any line then the makeup of [the line] changes a little bit,” said Backes. “I think another big body to get pucks in and have that grind really wearing things down, and kind of setting things up for the line after us, is first and foremost on my mind.

“I think there are certainly plays to be made on entrances, but there’s a lot of times when there’s not. But starting up that grind game that’s there at times, the more often it’s there the better we are. It can be overwhelming for teams to have to be in their end for minutes on end, and get a fresh line change, while you’re still in the offensive zone. That’s how goals are created that aren’t made on the rush. In the second half of the game [against the Red Wings] with JFK not feeling so hot, Sean Kuraly and myself felt pretty good with his speed, his ability and just the unselfish type of “let’s go in here and grind” to make space for the other guys. I don’t know how it all sorts out or if they’ve A, B, C and D type of choices, but there’s still a great deal of camp. So hopefully that all gets sorted out, so we’re able to build chemistry with whoever it is.”

There are other pieces to be worked in like Frank Vatrano or possibly Beleskey if both of Boston’s rookie wingers stick on the NHL roster, but it would seem that the Bruins are facing a major philosophical decision with their third line after bringing Spooner back into the fold. Do they go big, strong and “crash and bang” with Kuraly and Backes, or do the Bruins try to amp up Backes’ offensive production as trigger man with Ryan Spooner setting him as a speedy, skilled playmaker?

“[Kuraly and Backes] enjoy playing together, and in the playoffs they had some level of success,” said Cassidy of Backes, who finished with an underwhelming 17 goals and 38 points in his first season with the Bruins. “At some point we have to get a look at that. Noel was in that mix. Do we want to add skill on the left side if Kuraly is in to complement them, or do we want kind of three North/South guys? Those are the things that training camp is going to answer. It’s difficult because if you’re building a heavier line, and you’ve also got a Ryan Spooner who is more of a skill guy with Vatrano speed. Now the questions will come what’s your third line? We’re going to do whatever is best to suit the team, and we’ll number the lines as we see fit afterward.

“But I think it’s important that Backes has the right type of chemistry player [on his line]. We’ve addressed the top two with Krejci and [Pastrnak] and Bergie and Marchand, so now we’ve got to find the proper fit for Backes for him to be an effective player for us. He’s a very good hockey player and we’ve got to make sure he plays with people that complement his game too.”

So what would this humble hockey writer do if he were making the hockey decisions?

Probably start Spooner with Backes and Vatrano on the third line to start the season given Spooner’s considerable talent on the power play, and what’s been a bit more determined effort to battle for one-on-one pucks in the preseason. There’s no harm in potentially keeping Kuraly as the 13th forward on the NHL roster, and then going to him if A) Spooner falls back into previous bad habits or B) the B’s coaching staff determines they need more of a punishing fore-check presence as they did mid-streak against the Sens in the playoffs.

It may not be perfect and the surplus of third line bodies may result in an early season trade given the need around the NHL for talented bottom-six centers, but the Bruins need to do whatever is necessary to consistently squeeze more production and quality shifts out of that group, and particularly out of Backes, this season. 

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Backes ready to give Bruins his best, something they need

Backes ready to give Bruins his best, something they need

The first couple of seasons with David Backes in a Boston Bruins uniform were supposed to be his best when he signed a couple of summers ago.

Backes was a 32-year-old signing a five-year contract with the Bruins that was a big commitment to a new organization after spending his entire pro hockey career with the St. Louis Blues. At the same time, it was also a significant investment by the Original Six team in an aging, big-bodied forward that would presumably provide size, strength, leadership and an alpha dog personality as he entered hockey middle age.

Conventional wisdom was that the B’s would yield enough out of Backes in the first few years, while he was still lingering on the back end of his prime, to make up for an aging high-impact player likely to be slowing down in the last few years of the deal all while carrying a significant $6 million per season salary cap hit.

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Instead, Backes has missed time with inflamed bursa sacs in his elbow and a couple of bouts with diverticulitis in his first two seasons, and he’s posted 19 goals and 42 points along with a minus-1 rating in 84 games. It’s nothing to be embarrassed about, of course, but it’s also not quite up to the standard Backes established as a longtime captain in St. Louis. Certainly not up to the 25 goals and 53 points of production that Backes averaged in his final three seasons with the Blues, and probably not what the B’s were hoping for when they signed him.

Some of that was Backes’ injuries and coming in and out of the lineup a few times over the course of a season. Some of it was certainly adjusting to a new city, a new organization and a new roomful of teammates. With Backes back and in the flow of things after diverticulitis surgery in October that removed 10 inches of his colon, now is the time for the 33-year-old to step up and produce in the way Boston expected in his first few golden years with the Bruins.

Backes has done that recently with a two-goal game against the Arizona Coyotes last week, and three points and 10 shots on net in his last three games while lining up with Danton Heinen and Riley Nash in a pretty well-balanced third line. He is finally heating up and providing some secondary offense, and some consistency from Backes could really be a game-changer for the Bruins.

“David has scored goals in this league, either 15 to 20, 22, 23, whatever the average number is every year,” said Bruce Cassidy. “We kind of found out at the end of [last year] at what he truly excelled at. I thought he did a really good job with Bergy and Marchy too, but moving him down allows better balance in our lineup.

“I think he enjoys being a mentor to Danton [Heinen] and to a certain degree [Riley] Nash, and it allows him to play his style of game where he has the most success. As long as it meshes with the way that we want to play, then we’re all happy. We’re seeing those results now, and as long as it stays that way we can focus on other things like who fits well with [David] Krejci.”

It would appear the stars are now aligned for Backes to be that high-impact player that can shoulder some of the heavy burden that high-end forwards Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Krejci have been carrying for the last couple of seasons. He can do that while headlining a third line that should be able to support everything that the top-6 guys are doing, and pick them up when they’re experiencing the rare quiet night.  

“I think David [Backes] is the leader in terms of how he wants that style of line to play. I think we talked about that at the start of the year…trying to find a way to build a line around him. Now we are starting to see that. That’s the type of line he wants, and now we have the pieces in-house here that are now starting to fit. It took us a while for different reasons – injuries or trying to find the right chemistry,” said Bruce Cassidy. “It looks like it’s falling into place. And I think the other guys are willing to do that as well. It’s one thing for him to ask [a line] to play a certain way if the players aren’t receptive to it. It’s like anything [when you’re acting as] a teacher.

“If the students aren’t willing to learn, it’s going to be tough. I think Danton Heinen wants to stay in this league. He’ll stay any way he can. Now he’s recognizing how to stay in it, early on with the [Sean] Kuraly, [Tim] Schaller and now you’re starting to see what he can bring to a line offensively. He’s certainly a good student, and [Riley] Nash, that’s his game. It complements him as well.”

The attitude of the Bruins is palpable when Backes is in the lineup whether he’s scoring, or simply carving out a big space and throwing some board-rattling hits at the opposition. He gives the Bruins a more courageous attitude by virtue of his toughness and a willingness to back up his words with action when it’s warranted.

It’s no surprise that he finds the silver lining to the adversity he’s faced in the last two seasons, and ways in which it can help the team. 

“It’s kind of the way things go. You’re not going to have a perfect road ahead of you,” said Backes. “That’s kind of been the story for the team as well where it’s been fits and starts, injuries and obstacles where we’ve had to build some character and resolve with the group, and an identity that can be very tough to play against as we go on.

“I’ve heard from more than a few guys on other teams that [they think] we’re going to be a tough team to play against going down the stretch.”

The same can hopefully be said for Backes as well. The expectation is that the big winger will get even better, more productive and more difficult to play against as he grows stronger and gets a chance to put together the best hockey of his Bruins career.

It’s what the Bruins have expected from Day One, and what Backes seems finally ready to supply after passing through all the challenges that have faced him since signing in Boston a couple of summers ago. 

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Morning Skate: Karlsson on his way out in Ottawa?

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Morning Skate: Karlsson on his way out in Ottawa?

Here are all the links from around the hockey world, and what I’m reading while the reviews from the Last Jedi start pouring in. 
 
-- USA Today takes an early look at the expected 2018 NHL free-agent class, which will be pretty good with players like John Carlson, James van Riemsdyk and John Tavares leading the way. But take a look at 2019: Tyler Seguin, Sergei Bobrovsky, Erik Karlsson, Drew Doughty. That’s the class that NHL teams should be saving their rainy day funds for.  
 
-- Erik Karlsson isn't concerned that he was asked to provide a no-trade list to Ottawa Senators management, but it sure sounds like the Sens are considering some major decisions right now as they struggle following last spring’s playoff run. 
 
-- PHT writer Adam Gretz has the details of Columbus Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella basically blowing off the media after an ugly loss on Tuesday night. 

 -- Does Auston Matthews have a concussion right now? That is the million-dollar question in Toronto. 
 
-- Johnny Gaudreau threw out a shootout move against the Minnesota Wild that was so nasty Bruce Boudreau was questioning if it was legal. 
 
-- The Calgary Flames are growing in confidence and building momentum as they forge ahead in the Western Conference. 

-- For something completely different: As the review pour in, here is a spoiler-free Last Jedi review from FOH (Friend of Haggs) Rich Shirtenlieb after he was able to get into a sneak preview earlier this week.