Anderson: Bruins finally find perfect spot for David Backes

Ty Anderson
December 08, 2017 - 7:00 am

Winslow Townson/USA Today Sports

It took well over a year, but it seems that the Bruins are finally beginning to understand David Backes, and more importantly, where Backes fits within the B’s picture.

Spoiler: It’s not anywhere in Boston’s top six forward group.

Signed to unofficially upgrade the Bruins from what they were with Loui Eriksson (a player that scored 30 goals and proved to be a fit with David Krejci on the B’s second line in his final season in Boston), the Bruins wasted nearly an entire season trying to force chemistry between Krejci and Backes. When that failed, and arguably cost Claude Julien his job, Bruce Cassidy attempted to get Backes’ offensive game going on the can’t-fail right-side spot on Boston’s first line with Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron. By the time the playoffs wrapped, Backes was jamming away as a line three mucker.

That, at $6 million per season, would seem like an obvious disappointment.

But as the last 37 minutes of hockey have shown, being the leader of his own line -- this new one aligning him as the right-side presence next to Danton Heinen and Riley Nash -- is where Backes seems like a lock to be at his absolute best for Cassidy’s Bruins.

Although not tasked with the center responsibilities of that line, Backes represented that line, which accounted for 13 of the Black and Gold’s 32 shots in their 6-1 final over the Coyotes on Thursday, as its leader in more ways than one. The vocal presence the Nash-Heinen duo needs, it was Backes that pulled the Bruins out of their mid-game funk with two goals in less than six minutes, and most definitely forced the offensive issue with strong forechecking and sustained offensive zone time throughout the night.

“Overall it felt like we spent a lot of time in the O-zone, pucks back to the point, getting some traffic in front and we were able to create some turnovers too and create some forecheck goals,” Backes assessed. “That’s a good identity, especially for our line, to have and to continue shift-by-shift to provide that spark, provide that pressure on the other teams and even if we don’t score hopefully we tire somebody out for the next line to come out and capitalize on it and that sort of mentality will carry us a long way.”

It’s the expected impact from somebody Cassidy considers to be the line’s nucleus.

“I think David [Backes] is the leader in that, 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 – build a line around him,” Cassidy admitted. “And 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. 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 tell – ask to play a certain way if the players aren’t receptive to it. It’s like anything – a teacher. If the students aren’t willing to learn, it’s going to be tough.”

And learning proved to be anything but tough for this oddly cohesive unit.

“It’s communication,” Heinen, who led all B’s forwards in ice time on Thursday, said of the line’s seemingly instant success. “[Backes] talks a lot on the bench and talks to us a lot of what he wants out there and it’s all for a purpose and so those are things we try to listen to him. He’s been at it a long time and he’s got a good knowledge of the game.”

“I think he’s a really good leader, he’s like a [Bergeron] in that respect where he does a lot of really good things on the ice and never cuts corners,” Nash agreed. “Dave is a pretty vocal guy on the ice so that definitely helps me. It’s not my natural personality to be loud and boisterous on the ice, but I’ve been trying to adopt that into my game.”

(Backes, mind you, has never had an issue being the loud and boisterous one. “He never shuts up out there,” B’s defenseman Torey Krug joked after a game last week.)

"He’s a commanding presence," Bruins winger Brad Marchand, one of the players that helped recruit Backes to the Bruins in 2016, said. "In the room he’s a very vocal guy and very intelligent. He knows the game and he knows what to say at the right time. He can really bring a lot of emotion to the game – in the room and on the bench and it shows in his play. He’s always determined, he plays hard, he’s very tough to play against."

But why does Backes, who has always played this way and been this loud, work with the quiet and young but not the all-world center or two-time playoff leader in points?

Is it something as simple as the idea that Backes, who has been a take-charge kind of player since the moment he broke into the league, wants to convey his own message, similar to what Cassidy alluded to with Backes designing his own line?

“Sometimes that’s the way it is,” Cassidy said of Backes’ impact on his ‘own’ line versus riding shotgun to Krejci or Bergeron on one of the B’s top two forward lines. “Some players jell better with others. It doesn’t make them less – it’s just oil and water or however you want to describe it. David Backes likes to play straight lines, get it behind their D, get puck possession, cycle it around, wear down the other team. Set it up for the next line if need be. Create your offense that way. [Krejci] is more needs the puck in the neutral zone. Wants to draw people to him and have speed around him, or outside threats. I’m not going to say necessarily line rush because I think David Krejci is good on the cycle as well when he starts getting in the offensive zone because he sees passing lanes. Just different ways to get through there. So that’s fine.”

No matter the reason, it’s something that creates a borderline unparalleled balance for the Bruins, who were once considered notoriously top-heavy during their lean years.

And it hasn’t taken long for the scoreboard to reflect that balance.

This is a team that’s grabbed a point in all but one of Backes’ nine games this season (they’re 5-1-3 with Backes in action and 8-8-1 without him). The Bruins are also 3-1-0 in games with the Bergeron-Krejci-Backes trio in action at the same time, and have outscored their opponents 18-to-9 over that four-game sample size. There’s been tangible involvement from a member of The Big Three in 14 of those 18 goals, too.

“You have [Backes and Krejci] each running a line and then obviously [Bergeron] has his,” Cassidy acknowledged. “We are going to be very dangerous.”

Without a hint of buyer's remorse on their $30 million investment, either. 

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