Bruins

Bruins analysis: The pros and cons of another year of David Backes in Boston

Bruins analysis: The pros and cons of another year of David Backes in Boston

Clearly it hasn’t gone as either David Backes or the Boston Bruins planned during his first three years with his free-agent team.

The regular season was nothing to write home about for the 35-year-old with seven goals and 20 points in 70 games while bouncing between different lines, different roles, and spending unfamiliar time as a healthy scratch toward the end of the season. It was the first time it had devolved to that point with the B’s for the former captain of the St. Louis Blues.

Then Backes was again a healthy scratch for the final three games of the Stanley Cup Final and clearly felt like the confidence within him organizationally had taken a hit while being left out of the most important games of the season.

“It was a culmination of uncertainty, feelings of possibilities, potential opportunities with all sorts of things and missed opportunities,” said Backes. “It’s a swirl and a whirlwind of emotions that I haven’t fully gripped and I don’t know that I will in the near future. I don’t know if my situation and all of the extra layers helps or hurts. That’s my jumble of random thoughts.”

What does Backes mean by extra layers?

“Who our opponent was. Sitting out the last three games. Yeah, all of those sorts of things,” said Backes. “I had my exit meeting. They’re smart guys and they know that things are pretty raw. To dive too deep, we didn’t get there in our meetings. I probably had a better answer for you when I was in control of my future. I’m kind of in flux at the moment. I’ve got to trust in a bigger plan and that’s where I’m at.”

It all raises questions about Backes’ future with the team moving forward, and whether or not his long-term future will be in Boston. Even Backes himself seemed curious as to how it’s all going to play out this summer, but Don Sweeney sounded fairly certain this week that the veteran power forward is still a part of the team.

That would mean that a buyout of the final two years of Backes’ contract isn’t currently in the Black and Gold's gameplan.

“I don’t think any of our seasons ended the way we liked, to be honest with you. I think that we had a tremendous run. [Backes] was a big part of that, reinserted back in in Game 2 against Toronto where he elevated our physical play. You know, was a big part of our hockey club, on and off the ice. So where it fits going forward, he’s a part of our hockey club,” said Don Sweeney. “I have [trade] discussions on different players. He may or may not be a part of that, but for the most part, he’s a part of our hockey club.

“His impact is again up to Bruce [Cassidy] and up to David in terms of, from a production standpoint, he might be referencing that or from a leadership standpoint we know what he brings. I think there’s value there.”

It all makes sense given that there wouldn’t be much cap savings for the Bruins if they were to buy out Backes this summer. He also remains important in terms of a big-bodied, strong power forward who can intimidate from time to time, and as a veteran vocal leader who brings a different personality inside the Bruins' leadership structure.

That won’t preclude the Bruins from discussing potential trade scenarios if Boston could get out from under a contract that’s never been favorable. But it feels like it’s going to be a longshot for any team willing to take on the final two seasons of Backes in his mid-30’s unless the Bruins are likewise looking to take on another unwieldy contract in return.

That really isn’t going to put the Bruins in a better cap situation, and there’s no guarantee the replacement player will be the same kind of solid pro that Backes has been over the last three seasons.  

The Bruins are running under the premise that Backes is going to be back once again next season and will be filling out a role in the bottom-6 as a third- or fourth-line winger. He could most definitely add some toughness to that role and be that veteran, hard-nosed player willing to stick up for his teammates in time of need.

It was something he embraced toward the end of the regular season and something the Bruins needed out of their forward group.

“I thought he best fit in with [Sean] Kuraly / [Noel] Acciari / [Joakim] Nordstrom, in that type of role. At the end of the day, when [Chris] Wagner, Acciari were all healthy, there was competition for those spots, so sometimes he was in there, sometimes he wasn’t,” said Sweeney. “That’s where I see his best contribution to the team. At times he can move up in the lineup and give you some grit, a net-front presence, but in general, that’s where he played his best hockey for us. So, we’ll have to see how it all shakes out.”

Clearly the offense isn’t what it once was for Backes, and expecting him to ever get back to the 20-goal, 50-point season he reached with the Blues isn’t going to happen again in his NHL career. But it sounds like there is still going to be a role for Backes on the Bruins for at least next season, and the Bruins will need to find a way to work around the $6 million cap hit for next year while trying to squeeze the most out of his current ability level.

That will be a challenge, but the B’s also were able to get to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final this season even with Backes, while still bringing some positive value, clearly not able to live up to the contract he signed three years ago. 

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Bruins' Jake DeBrusk, Brett Ritchie trending toward return vs. Devils

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Bruins' Jake DeBrusk, Brett Ritchie trending toward return vs. Devils

BRIGHTON, Mass. — The Bruins should get at least a couple of pieces of their team back from injuries for Tuesday night’s game against the New Jersey Devils.

Jake DeBrusk (lower body) and Brett Ritchie (upper body) both skated without restrictions in Monday morning’s practice at Warrior Arena, and it sounded like they would play against the Devils barring any setbacks following practice. For DeBrusk, it will be a welcome return after a five-game absence and he’ll hope to pick up where he left off with goals in each of the two games before he got hurt early in the first period against the Canadiens on November 5.

“I’m feeling good,” said DeBrusk, who has three goals and six points in 15 games this season. “I’ve obviously been missing the game, so it was great skating with the boys today. I scored in back-to-back games before Montreal, so I used the time [out with injury] to reflect on things and rejuvenate myself in a way. It was different things that were getting to me a little bit. I used the time to be more mature with my approach [to the game] coming back whenever that is going to be.”

Patrice Bergeron (lower body) didn’t skate with the Bruins on Monday and will be a game-time decision against the Devils while planning to travel with the team to New Jersey. Torey Krug (upper body) skated ahead of practice on Monday and could be nearing a return to the lineup as well, but he won’t be playing against the Devils.

“Ritchie and DeBrusk both skated and no residual effects right now, so we anticipate they’re going to play,” said Cassidy. “We’ll put them as game-time decisions. “Krug skated. He’s not available [against the Devils] so he’ll be available a little later as well.”

As far as other injured Bruins are concerned, Kevan Miller has had a couple of days off the ice, “won’t play this week” but is looking at a possible return to game action next week after he was not on the ice with the team on Monday morning. John Moore (shoulder surgery) did skate with the main group and continues to make progress in his recovery from offseason surgery.

Tuukka Rask will get the start against the Devils on Tuesday night, and both Brendan Gaunce and Urho Vaakanainen were called up to the Bruins ahead of Tuesday’s trip to New Jersey. It didn’t look like Gaunce will be playing against the Devils, however, unless somebody expected to play isn’t able to at game time.

Here are the projected Bruins line combos and D-pairings for Tuesday night’s game vs. the Devils based on practice:

PROJECTED LINES

Brad Marchand David Krejci David Pastrnak
Anders Bjork Charlie Coyle Danton Heinen
Jake DeBrusk Par Lindholm Brett Ritchie
Joakim Nordstrom Sean Kuraly Chris Wagner

DEFENSIVE PAIRINGS

Zdeno Chara Charlie McAvoy
Matt Grzelcyk Brandon Carlo
Urho Vaakanainen Connor Clifton

STARTING GOALIE

Tuukka Rask

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Charlie McAvoy 'building (his) game' after slow start to Bruins season

Charlie McAvoy 'building (his) game' after slow start to Bruins season

The good news is that a physical challenge against a big, strong and offensively explosive Washington Capitals team brought out the best in Charlie McAvoy on Saturday night.

The bad news is that hasn’t been the norm this season for the 21-year-old McAvoy more than a month into the new NHL season. McAvoy picked up a couple assists in 23:23 of ice time in the shootout loss to the Caps, and even better, along with defense partner Zdeno Chara he was able to keep Alex Ovechkin under wraps throughout the game.

The two points would have been better, of course, and McAvoy quickly confirmed that after the game while also acknowledging that he played well.

“I tried to play hard on those guys and a big part of that is physicality,” said McAvoy. “[Ovechkin] ending up with zero is pretty nice. I can be happy with that, but I’m pretty pissed off that we pissed away two points.”

That was something to build on for a player in McAvoy who has just six assists in 20 games, and equaled half his offensive output from the first 19 games with the two helpers against Washington.

“He was terrific tonight. [The] level of competition tends to bring out the best in Charlie, and we certainly saw that [against the Capitals]. We needed it against a heavier group. I think he took the challenge head on. It’s a tougher game for the [Connor] Cliftons and the [Matt] Grzelcyks of the world,” said Bruce Cassidy of McAvoy, who one evening prior had been part of a defensive breakdown that led to a Maple Leafs goal when he wandered away from the front of the net. “[McAvoy] played a lot of minutes, and Charlie was really good in that way at both ends of the ice.

“I thought he was excellent. With Charlie, it’s just, he’s got to stay in the moment, that’s when he plays his best hockey. We’re not in there feeding him. It’s not information overload for that particular type of player. It’s protect the middle of the ice, be assertive with the puck when you see ice and make good decisions when to go. I thought [against the Capitals] a lot of it fell into place. He was up the ice at the right time, defending at the right time and not being vulnerable to a serious counterattack from a team that can finish. He wasn’t putting himself in bad spots. I thought that was the best part. As much as he was involved in the game, there wasn’t much risk. That’s a sign of a guy that’s growing.”

Now McAvoy faces the challenge of maintaining that high level of play and continuing to eliminate the tentativeness to his game. It certainly hasn’t been all bad as McAvoy is leading the Bruins with 22:21 of ice time per game and is a plus-8 for the season while routinely lining up against the other team’s best offensive players.

But he’s also on pace for just 25 points this season and is still looking for his first goal of the year, and hasn’t really managed to find the balance between offense and defense that makes for a true No. 1 defenseman at the NHL level.

Some of it has been a few unlucky bounces along the way for McAvoy and those he’s set up for scoring chances, but some of it is also about the paltry 20 shots he’s put on net in his 20 games played this season. Even in the Washington game, McAvoy missed high and wide with a golden scoring chance from the slot on a setup by David Krejci that eventually turned into a goal for David Pastrnak from a bad angle at the side of the net.

McAvoy talked about his game a couple of days ago ahead of the semi-breakthrough performance against Washington, and it was pretty clear the 21-year-old knew there was more for him to give out on the ice.

“For me, it’s just playing hockey. Every night I’m lucky and I’m happy I get to take a lot of pride in the defensive side of the game lining up against guys who are world class players. I really take pride in just shutting them down. [Chara] takes a lot of pride in that and he sets the precedent in how we approach those things,” said McAvoy. “Then it’s easy for me to follow his lead. Whatever the game presents is what I try and get [offensively]. I feel like I’m building my game right now. I’m trying to build it from the defensive zone out.

“Things just happen and you’ve just got to play and have fun. At times if I’m going through streaks where I’m not having much opportunity or chances, that’s when I look at it and say where I can start joining in more. But I feel like I’m getting these chances. Some of it is just shooting more, and some of it maybe is just bounces. It’s been kind of new to me where it’s a streak like this, but I think there’s a lot of guys on this team like me that are looking to break through and get on a roll. I know that if I build my game from the defense out and that I’m a defenseman first and foremost. If I can do the best I can every night to keep the puck out of our net, hopefully when we get to the other side of the net I can start helping put it in theirs.”

To put it in perspective, some hockey prognosticators — this humble hockey writer included — pegged McAvoy as a possible Norris Trophy candidate for this season, and he’s got a long way to go to achieve that level. There are encouraging signs he’s starting to make the climb there after a very slow start out of the gate, but McAvoy won’t be there until he becomes the Bruins' best D-man pretty much every night for long stretches of time.

McAvoy was exactly that against the Capitals, and now he needs to begin doing it again and again with Torey Krug out of the lineup due to injury, and Zdeno Chara unable to shoulder that kind of burden anymore nightly at 42 years old. The game Tuesday night in New Jersey won’t be as stimulating as a Saturday night game against a Capitals team that won the Cup a couple of seasons ago, so it might be a good test for McAvoy as he keeps building his game to a higher level.

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