By Kevin Flanagan
BSD Bruins Senior Staff Writer
In the opening to his hockey notes spot in last weekend’s Sunday Boston Globe, Bruins beat guy/columnist Fluto Shinzawa writes about an interview he had recently with last summer’s big free-agent catch for the B’s, David Backes.
In it, he details all the reason that Backes is more relaxed approaching his second season with the Black and Gold – familiarity with the city, a comfortable living situation, etc. – and his happiness with his off-season training just a few weeks before camp opens in September.
He also admits that his first season in Boston was quite a bit of a letdown, and how upper-management let him know about it last winter. Shinzawa writes, “Just honest evaluation of, ‘Hey, this is where my game’s lagging perhaps, the way the game’s trending, and how we need to keep up,’ ” Backes said. “We need to be honest in order to improve ourselves. That was a recognition, probably in January in conversations with Cam (Neely), Don Sweeney, and a little bit with Claude (Julien). This was the way I needed to improve myself. I’ve really taken that to heart and put the time in this summer.”
There is a not so delicious irony that a majority – or at least the initial – comments to Backes about his level of play, came from the two guys who thought he was a fit for a team that already lacked speed. It was widely thought across the league before the former St. Louis Blues captain came to the Bruins, that he was a more talented version of Milan Lucic. While his straight-line speed is adequate once he gets going, the time it takes to grind the gears to get there often leads to being late getting in on plays, missed opportunities, etc.
When assessing his team on June 6th of 2016 – a good three weeks before inking Backes to a five-year, $30 million contract – Sweeney stressed the importance of speed in your lineup as the game evolves. “The pace of play is obvious,” said the B’s GM. “Pittsburgh has done a really good job of smothering things, both offensively and defensively. They’ve swarmed the puck, they’ve used their speed and they’ve been opportunistic. They’ve balanced their lines up and down, and had four lines going while spreading out their offense, and taking advantage of their mismatches.
“It’s obviously trending first and foremost toward the speed of the game, and being able to transition the puck. But defensively the speed, in terms of how teams close and not spending time in your own end, is important, and the goaltending has been outstanding.”
So, signing the 32-year-old, not so swift skater to a five-year deal fit into the thinking at that time, how?
Again, the irony here is Backes would have fit beautifully into the ’10 through ’14 teams, who pummeled the opposition into ice chips on a nightly basis. Their aggressive, physical style; often times had the other team’s defensemen throwing the puck up the boards without even looking, and the wingers who were responsible for retrieving it, would more times than not turn tail, resulting in an offensive zone turnover.
His struggles on the wing last season were an indication that his best-suited role is that of a third line center. However, with the likes of Ryan Spooner – who could be dealt before the season starts – Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, Danton Heinen and Austin Czarnik competing for roster spots at varying degrees at the center spot, it is highly unlikely that Backes will see much time in the slot.
Of course, there were extenuating circumstances that led to Sweeney and Neely being attracted to the leadership that led him to the captaincy with the Blues. The Bruins dressing room had become a bit of a vacuum with the loss of players like Shawn Thornton and Johnny Boychuk, so looking at someone like Backes taking over the persona of a Mark Recchi may have been enticing.
However, in late July, Neely told the media that the transition to Boston did not go as well as hoped for the first-year Bruin.
“David had a hard time adjusting,” said the B’s big boss. “He mentioned that at the end of the year. It was more of a challenge for him to come to a new city and a new team, to get to know 22, 24 other players. That took a while for him to get adjusted.”
Even so, those types of veteran editions are generally made when a team is sitting upon the doorstep of a realistic run at a Stanley Cup championship, something not even the most ardent Bruins fans have to view as fantasy entering this upcoming campaign. Not to mention, their acquisition is usually via trade, not a lucrative and lengthy free-agent signing.
Moreover, the pressure might be even more intense on Backes this season. The team made the playoffs last season, and lost to an Ottawa Senators team that made it to game six of the Eastern Conference Finals against the back to back Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
The blossoming of David Pastrnak as a true sniper, and the emergence of Brando Carlo on the blue line, will only add to fans hopes. Sprinkle in the splash that Charlie McAvoy made in the playoffs and the hopes the team has for the likes of JFK and Anders Bjork, and there could be some undue pressure put on a team on which only half of them can shave.
Even with these bright lights pointing towards the future, seldom to teams with the number of players under the age of 23 play consistent hockey at the NHL level. Talent is one thing, experience over an 82 game regular season is another.
August and September are to hockey fans, what February and March are to those who love baseball – a time for optimism. However, much like late winter storms and volatile spring weather, reality always rears its ugly head. And the facts regarding David Backes can’t be ignored.
He looked slow and cumbersome for much of the season last year, and he is now 33 years old. Unless you were a player in Major League Baseball in the 1990’s and early 2000’s; not many athletes get quicker, faster and stronger in their 30’s.
So, root as you may for a resurrection for David Backes this season; it is far more likely that he will flat-line or fall back, no matter how comfortable he and his family have become in the Hub.