Kalman: Fewer games may mean more production from Backes

Matt Kalman
January 17, 2019 - 11:43 pm

David Backes scored a crucial power-play goal in the Bruins’ 5-2 win over the St. Louis Blues at TD Garden on Thursday, one night after he was a healthy scratch for a 4-3 loss at Philadelphia.

His previous goal came Jan. 5 against Buffalo in his first game after a three-game suspension.

Coincidence? Probably not.

The 34-year-old Backes was scratched for the first time in his three seasons with the Bruins because coach Bruce Cassidy had issues with the way the forward was keeping pace in the up-tempo style the Bruins play when they’re at their best. The best remedy for a lack of pace is fresh legs, and Backes certainly had them against the franchise he captained for several years before joining the Bruins as an unrestricted free agent July 1, 2016.

Backes’ former Blues teammates may not have seen a difference in him, as he was heavy on the forecheck, led a couple clean entries into the St. Louis zone and, most importantly, tipped Zdeno Chara’s slap shot into the net from the slot with four minutes left in the second period to tie the score 2-2.

“Trying to not take it in the face first of all … and if you can get a piece of it [it will> change directions, with his velocity, it’s got a chance,” Backes said. “While on the ground looked and it was in the net and that was a good feeling to get the game tied and have a chance to get two points tonight.”

Those two points came after Chris Wagner gave the Bruins a 3-2 lead with a breakaway goal. Tuukka Rask made 28 saves on 30 shots to earn career win No. 252 tie Tiny Thompson’s franchise record.

After the victory that ended a two-game losing streak, Backes met the media with his young daughter Stella at his side. Perhaps he brought her out to discourage tough questions about his recent exploits – struggling and losing ice time, getting sat out, and then triumphantly returning on a line with Wagner and Sean Kuraly.

Nonetheless, he handled the question about what the previous 48 hours had been like with his usual professionalism and eloquence.

“Yeah, I mean, it’s tumultuous but it tests your character and you see how you respond to it and I think I’ve taken the right route and those types of goals that I scored tonight are what I’m used to scoring, you know, a dozen a year,” he said. “And if I can get back to those places, we can get pucks to the net, and there’s a dozen of those going in and I can shoot a couple more in, you know, that’s kind of the place I want to be. It worked tonight. Is it going to work every night? Potentially not, but if I can get to those spots, we can get pucks there, you know, the law of averages is going to work on our side eventually.”

Not to ruin the positive vibes, but it’s probably not going to work most nights. Backes has five goals in 39 games this season after he had 14 in 57 games last season. With the deterioration of some of his skills and the increase in the speed of the game, the days of Backes getting 20-25 goals and 50-55 points are probably over. One scout just a month ago summed up Backes to WEEI.com when he said, “he’s a fourth-line player.”

Now that might not be what the Bruins are paying for with Backes in the third year of a five-year contract worth $6 million per season. As much as they wanted to add Backes’ character to their dressing room, they hoped he could also be productive and maybe even stabilize David Krejci’s wing.

Although Backes has turned to be an admired leader among the Bruins, the rest of the plan hasn't worked out as Boston had hoped. But at this point the Bruins know two things:

A. Backes is at best a third-line wing;

B. The Bruins should have enough young players, or should be able to acquire someone, to make up for what Backes is not in terms of top-six production.

Now comes the difficult decision coach Bruce Cassidy will have about how to keep Backes in the lineup. With Noel Acciari, Wagner and Kuraly together the past couple weeks the Bruins had a line that should have been a fourth line but was able to produce at the offensive end and take on tough matchups in the defensive zone. Backes didn’t spoil that Thursday but there’s no telling how he’ll fare when the schedule gets heavier after Boston’s late-January nine-day break.

It might not be the worst thing in the world to begin a rotation with Backes, Acciari and Wagner. If Danton Heinen, Ryan Donato and Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson begin to struggle or aren’t projected to be effective against certain matchups, they could also be part of the rotation.

This would keep everyone, especially Backes, fresh down the stretch and could maximize the Bruins’ depth now that they’re almost healthy. Joakim Nordstrom will be back from injury soon to push for playing time.

When the Bruins signed John Moore last July they envisioned him becoming part of a similar rotation on defense. That’s what the Bruins have now. In order to see more performances out of Backes like the one he had Thursday, he may have to play fewer games as part of a rotation of forwards.

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