Bruins

Bruins summer series: David Backes at a big crossroads for the Bruins

Bruins summer series: David Backes at a big crossroads for the Bruins

Today’s piece on David Backes is the ninth in a 10-part series over two weeks breaking down the core Bruins group of players, and where they stand headed into next season after last spring’s Stanley Cup playoff run.

It was very clear at the end of Boston’s run this postseason that 35-year-old David Backes was at a crossroads.

The Bruins power forward was a healthy scratch in the last three games of the Stanley Cup Final against his former St. Louis Blues team, and was coming off a regular season where he scored a career-low 20 points in 70 games. Backes is now three seasons into his five-year deal with the Bruins and has declined in performance each season while never living up to the hard-nosed 20-goal, 50-point guy that he was during his best seasons with the Blues.  

Backes is still a physical presence for the Bruins at 6-foot-3, 221 pounds, and he adopted a role late in the year where he was dropping the gloves with greater regularity to stand up for his teammates. There’s still some importance there for a young, undersized group of Bruins forwards that is sometimes short in the size, strength and nastiness department.

But there’s also an admission at this point from the Bruins that the contract was a mistake given how much the NHL has sped up in the last few seasons, and how Backes has slowed now in his mid-30’s. That will make this coming season an important one for a player who’s likely to be a bottom-6 guy for the Bruins — if he’s a regular in the lineup at all.

“This offseason is going to be very important for David. He’s a proud guy. He’s somebody we looked at when we signed him that he would help the core group get to another [Stanley Cup] Final,” said Bruins President Cam Neely to NBC Sports Boston in an exclusive 1-on-1 interview. “But what happened was that nobody predicted how fast [the game] got and how quick it got, and which way David was going.

“So this offseason is going to be very important for David. He’s been a captain. He’s an alternate captain here. He’s got a strong voice and he has opinions. Players look up to him in that locker room. He’s respected in that locker room. I know that.”

Will Backes still be with the team when training camp breaks in October and the Bruins are getting ready for the regular season?

Certainly it would be a coup for the Bruins if they can get out from under his $6 million cap hit, though it’s going to be difficult for the contract to be moved given his declining performance. Backes can still play a key leadership role for the Bruins and there’s zero question that his voice still carries weight inside the Bruins dressing room.

It was just as apparent, though, that Backes couldn’t maintain the skating legs needed in today’s NHL when he was playing regularly. Time off allowed him to regain his best skating legs and Backes could have bursts of effectiveness when he jumped back into the lineup. That’s going to be a difficult line to walk over the course of an 82-game regular season with roster spots at a premium.

The question now is how effective Backes can be on the ice in his declining years. Can he be a consistent, physical presence while providing the leadership and toughness that Boston still needs?

Or is he going to be a healthy scratch at the end of Boston’s roster on most nights, just as he was in some of the most important games of the season?

Those kinds of questions won’t be answered until training camp begins and Backes’ situation gains more clarity amidst the players competing for roster spots, and considering Boston’s salary cap situation with Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo still unsigned.

Key stat: 20 – The number of points for David Backes during 70 games in the regular season. It was the lowest offensive output of his 13-year NHL career, and the seven goals were the second-lowest behind only the lockout-shortened 2013 regular season.  

Backes in his own words: “It’s a swirl and a whirlwind of emotions that I haven’t fully gripped. I don’t know that I will in the near future. I don’t know if all of the extra layers of my situation helps or hurts. Knowing who our opponent was and not playing the last three games. All of those sorts of things.”

The biggest question he faces: Can Backes do any better than last season? Is there a possibility that the Bruins can move Backes’ contract after watching other big-money older veterans like Patrick Marleau and Milan Lucic get moved this summer? How difficult is it going to be for the proud Backes to bounce back from being a healthy scratch in the final three games of the Stanley Cup Final? Plenty of big questions staring Backes down this summer.

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Why Bruins shouldn't pursue trade for Devils star Taylor Hall

Why Bruins shouldn't pursue trade for Devils star Taylor Hall

The Bruins have not consistently been massive players at the NHL trade deadline over their recent history, but they haven’t exactly been gun-shy either under general manager Don Sweeney. 

A couple of years ago, the Bruins tracked down one of the biggest deadline targets when they used a first-round pick and prospects to land Rick Nash in a move that ultimately didn’t work out. Last season, they bagged Charlie Coyle and Marcus Johansson in a pair of moves that helped them reach the Stanley Cup Final, and led to them signing Coyle to a six-year extension just a couple of weeks ago. 

Clearly Sweeney isn’t shy when his team has needs, even if he is absolutely reticent to trade first-round picks or top prospects unless it’s the kind of asset that fits into Boston’s long-term planning. 

So how does that play into this season’s top trade deadline target in New Jersey Devils winger and former Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall? 

Undoubtedly the Bruins could use a player of Hall’s caliber as the big, skilled winger that David Krejci has been looking for on his line for the last couple of seasons. It would force the Bruins to rearrange things a little bit, of course, whether it's shifting Jake DeBrusk down to the third line, or requiring one of Anders Bjork, Danton Heinen or DeBrusk to play on the right side rather than the left. 

But those are minor adjustments when it comes to a 28-year-old who's just a couple of years removed from 39 goals and 93 points on his way to the NHL’s MVP Award, and a player who could immediately give the Bruins two extremely dangerous offensive lines while handing Krejci the kind of experienced top goal-scorer he has been without since the days of Milan Lucic, Nathan Horton, Jarome Iginla, and even Loui Eriksson. 

The issues are two-fold with Hall, as they are with any number of big ticket items available at the deadline. The first issue would be the prohibitive cost for a player who's a former No. 1 overall pick and a Hart Trophy winner as well. The Devils would be seeking something along the lines of the Ottawa haul for Mark Stone (forward and D-man prospects along with a high draft pick).  

New Jersey is looking for first-round picks and top prospects with an eye toward defensemen after drafting Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier with high first-round picks in the last couple of years. The cost for the Bruins would be interesting given their organizational assets, and one has to wonder if young NHL roster players like Brandon Carlo, Bjork or DeBrusk would be in the crosshairs for the Devils organization. 

Would the Bruins be willing to give up a first-round pick, 2017 first-round pick Urho Vaakanainen and Anders Bjork in exchange for Hall? How about if it was Carlo and a second-round pick along with Jack Studnicka for a player in Hall who isn’t guaranteed to be sticking around in Boston after this season? Or DeBrusk, Vaakanainen and a second-round pick with it conditionally turning into a first-rounder if the Bruins can re-sign Hall following the conclusion of this current season? 

If the Bruins weren’t given assurances that Hall was willing to stay with Boston ahead of acquiring him, it would be a steep price to pay for a player who would be tasting unrestricted free agency for the first time in his NHL career while still in his prime. 

That brings up one of the other issues: the cost in salary cap damage. 

Hall is in the last year of a contract that pays him $6 million per season, but is due for a substantial raise based on his Hart Trophy season. How much of a raise will depend on how the rest of the current season goes for a player who has four goals and 22 points in 27 games thus far. Hall is on pace for just 12 goals and 67 points, and numbers like those coming off 11 goals and 37 points last season aren’t screaming out max contract to many NHL teams. 

Still, they would likely have to pay him at least as much as their highest paid player (David Krejci at $7.25 million if not more) given his body of work, his age and the amount of demand there will be for him around the NHL if he hits free agency. Given that the Bruins have Torey Krug, DeBrusk, Matt Grzelcyk, Zdeno Chara and Jaroslav Halak among others up for contracts following this season, it sure doesn’t feel like the right time for the Bruins to add another massive piece to their group, despite the desperate need for a top-6 sniper. 

These past two seasons should also be a warning sign to potentially interested teams like the Bruins that Hall is on the downslide of his career as he approaches 30 years old, and that his 2017-18 Hart Trophy season might be as good as it gets for a player who never consistently lived up to the hype. 

For all those reasons, it’s the right call for the Bruins to take a pass on Hall with teams like the Canadiens, Canucks, Avalanche and others in even better position to surrender the moon in order to bring on New Jersey’s slumping star.

Sometimes it’s about being the right fit, at the right time for the right price for an NHL team in big-time trades — and none of those things seem to be aligned for the Bruins and Hall. 

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Danton Heinen's play for Bruins hints there's more to his game

Danton Heinen's play for Bruins hints there's more to his game

Danton Heinen certainly takes a lot of heat when it comes to being a member of the Boston Bruins.

The 24-year-old winger is on pace for 15 goals and 38 points in 82 games this season, and has had his moments for the Black and Gold. One of them was in Tuesday night’s win over the Carolina Hurricanes when he stripped Jake Gardiner at the defensive blue line and then pushed the puck up the ice, leading to the game-winning, third period goal for Charlie Coyle.

It was part of a makeshift line that Bruce Cassidy threw together during the win over the Hurricanes with Heinen manning the right wing alongside Brad Marchand and Coyle while serving in a top-6 role for the Bruins. Now Cassidy looks like he’s going to keep that trio together for Thursday night’s home date against the Chicago Blackhawks while Jake DeBrusk, David Krejci and David Pastrnak form the other top-6 trio.

All of it will cease once Patrice Bergeron enters back into the lineup, but the defensive play and assist on the game-winner showed what Heinen can do when he’s operating at full two-way efficiency.

“Sometimes these young guys, they’re not going to win them all, but [Heinen] stayed with it. He really did. And that’s the part I like — the second effort, to win a puck in a 0-0 game, in a non-scoring situation,” said Cassidy, who has given Heinen power play time this season and been rewarded with some pretty strong passing and puck movement when he’s out on the ice. “It was more of a defensive play than anything, and he stuck with it. You need to be able to do that. He made the play, kind of going up through the neutral zone and the o-zone. He’s going to be able to do those with time and space.

“I was happy for him because we trust Danton in those situations and we don’t want him to lose that [confidence in our trust] when things aren’t falling into place for [him] offensively, you’ve still got to be able to do that. [So] good for him.”

The frustrating part about Heinen’s game is that there is more to his game offensively, as he showed in his rookie season when he posted 16 goals and 47 points. He teamed with Riley Nash and David Backes to carry the Bruins at times offensively as a dynamic third line in the first half of his rookie season, but that confidence hasn’t been as prevalent since that point.

There’s hesitancy from Heinen to shoot the puck with a paltry 32 shots on net in 28 games as clear evidence he needs to look for his shot a little more often than he does right now. 

The cerebral part of the playmaking game and the solid hands are there, and Heinen can finish plays when he's around the net. Even the compete level part of it has improved for the young winger. But the confidence that he can create plays offensively comes and goes, and makes him hit-or-miss when it comes to consistently producing offense. 

The humble Heinen even admitted that the long bank pass off the boards for the game-winning goal on Tuesday was a flubbed pass attempt from him rather than a crafty, creative play.

“It’s nice. I felt like I needed to redeem myself after giving away the puck earlier in the shift,” said Heinen, who had three goals and eight points along with a plus-4 rating in 14 games during the month of November. “There’s definitely not a lot of panic. All of the games have been down to the wire. We’re a confident group in tight games and guys make plays at the right time.”

It was clearly Heinen’s time against the Hurricanes at a great time — both for him and for the Bruins.

The bottom line with Heinen is this: He’s a solid two-way, third-line winger who the Bruins still have on the cheap at $2.8 million per season. Right now it says more about the Bruins' poor roster depth on the wings than it does about Heinen that he’s been thrust into a top-6 role, but the hope is still there that he can reach another level offensively at just 24 years old in his third year at the NHL level.

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