David Backes

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: Hey ref, let the boys play

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Morning Skate: Hey ref, let the boys play

Here are all the links from around the hockey world, and what I’m reading while getting in the holiday spirit listening to “Merry Christmas, Baby” from Bruce Springsteen, my favorite holiday song even though I’m not really a Springsteen guy.

To tell you the truth, I didn’t give this Brad Marchand play a second thought as far as supplementary discipline goes. He was whacked with a five minute interference major, which I thought was excessive in the first place, there were no injuries and it ended a contentious shift between Marchand and John Tavares. Let’s not go crazy with the suspensions and hearings, shall we? Let’s keep a little bit of the fun, violence and mayhem in the game, and leave it with what the officials called on the ice at the time. Good call by the Department of Player Safety to leave this one alone despite Marchand’s longtime customer status, and to leave alone the weird head-butting call on David Backes as well.  

David Pastrnak has officially made it in Boston with a profile in the Improper Bostonian. I never knew that Pasta was an amateur artist, or that he now has a Porsche after the new contract. Not too shabby.

The Florida Panthers need a goaltender with Roberto Luongo down and out, and former Bruins goalie farmhand Mike Hutchinson is one of the lead possibilities to help the Panthers out according to recent speculation from many, including Pro Hockey Talk.

The Golden Knights are in the weeds again with another tweet attempting to be funny that angered the Nashville Predators media corps. Was it ill-advised and poorly executed? Certainly if it was taken seriously as something that was meant to be funny, and that is always a potential pitfall when trying to be funny and edgy on twitter. But it’s a little much to think this was going to be damaging to anybody in particular. At least the Golden Knights were adult enough to apologize that they were in the wrong, as opposed to milquetoast Montreal radio personality Connor McKenna, who tried to pull a similar lame stunt with the Bruins media a few years ago.

More thoughts on the body of work that Matthew Tkachuk is putting together this season along with other assorted hockey things in The Athletic notebook.

For something completely different: You’ve got to love the response by some athletes down in Tennessee to a video posted on social media of a sweet little kid getting bullied. This is the way to take a negative and turn it into a positive.

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Nash looking to bring a little more to the table with Bruins

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Nash looking to bring a little more to the table with Bruins

BRIGHTON, Mass – Riley Nash has carved out a niche for himself as a reliable bottom-6 forward at the NHL. He plays the 200-foot game, is versatile enough to play all of the positions up front and puts up enough offense to realistically hold onto a spot as a mainstay on the third or fourth line for most NHL teams.

But the 28-year-old Nash is also a first-round pick, so there are always those flashes of offensive skill that hint at a little more under the surface. It’s never really manifested into anything consistent at the NHL level with his best season producing 10 goals and 24 points for the Carolina Hurricanes back in 2013-14. But even last season Nash really came on strong in the second half of the year and scored two goals in a huge road win over the New York Islanders, and now he finds himself centering a third line with a couple of offensive wingers in Danton Heinen and David Backes.

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Nash finished with a couple of assists in the Thursday night win over the Coyotes along with a game-high six shots on net and a plus-3 rating, and is on pace for six goals and a career-best 35 points. Nash hopes it’s the beginning of a hot stretch offensively for him and a line that’s looked good since they were put together, and there’s no doubting that the potential is there.

“I’d love to score more. It’s not like I’m not trying to score,” said Nash, with a good-natured laugh. “I think the opportunity when it presents itself, I need to be more assertive about getting pucks to the net. When there’s not a great chance, throw it there and hope that something good will happen. A lot of the top it’s off the pads with a guy going to the net, and it creates those second and third opportunities with zone time and everything else.”

Nash has a goal and five points with 13 shots on net in his last five games, and it looks like he’s in the middle of a productive stretch offensively. That being said, Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy is always looking to coax a little bit more out of a player that flashes high end shooting skills, hands and skating ability when he’s at his most confident.

“We hoped we’d get more pop out of him, and we’re starting to see some of it. The challenge we put in front of Riley is if he wanted to be pigeon-holed as a fourth line center, or do you want to grow into a third line center if you can show more offense?” said Bruce Cassidy. “I think he wants to do it, and we’re starting to see a little more of it. Sometimes it’s opportunity and sometimes it’s playing with the right guys, the right mix. Sometimes it’s about encouraging him to get out of that defensive mindset sometimes when he’s on the ice.

“Be mindful of what you want to do with the puck on offense, and he knows what to do defensively to be successful. Maybe we’re just going through a stretch where the puck is finding him more, and I do believe that does happen. He’s willing to be hard [on the puck] and take his chances, and if it doesn’t work out then he has trust in his linemates [to cover for him defensively].”

It’s up to Nash whether this is merely a hot offensive stretch or an uptick offensively in his second season with the Bruins, but his defense, versatility and reliability will always guarantee he’ll keep good looks from the Black and Gold. 

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