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.
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.