When the news broke Friday in the NHL’s annual free agent extravaganza that the Boston Bruins agreed to terms with former St. Louis captain and center David Backes, any optimism that the team might be acquiring a player with a great deal of experience and an impressive body of work as a top two-way forward and leader was tempered with concerns about the 32-year-old’s five-year, $30 million pact.
Regardless of what side of the fence you come down on, the 6-foot-3, 225-pound veteran is a multiple 30-goal scorer who spent his entire career with the Blues after being the 62nd overall selection in the storied 2003 NHL Entry Draft, the same one that saw new teammate Patrice Bergeron selected 17 spots ahead by the Bruins in Nashville.Now, 13 years later, the most senior member of the B’s was credited by Backes as one of the key players who reached out to him this week and helped sell him on leaving the only NHL home he’s ever known to try and get Boston back on a winning track.
“He, personally, was one of the guys that I was able to talk to,” Backes said in an afternoon conference call. “I can maybe flatter a little bit now that he’s my teammate, but I hate giving players credit, giving them any edge, when I’m playing against them. But he’s a guy you were pissed at by the end of the game because he never made a mistake. That’s a good way to be successful defensively and then, by the end of the game he typically was producing something [on the] offensive side of the score sheet, too – just a guy that you can’t take a shift off because he’s going to make you pay.
“If you’re going to get anything done against him, he’s always in the right spots, he’s winning draws against you, he’s a fearless competitor, he just keeps going and keeps his mind focused on what he needs to achieve during the game. He’s a winner. He’s won a gold medal, to my dismay. He’s also won a Stanley Cup. You can’t discredit any of those great achievements that he’s had.”
That Backes would have such immense respect for a player of Bergeron’s caliber is not surprising in the least. Natural competitors and leaders gravitate towards one another, after all. And, as the Minnesota native would later reference in his various remarks, those leaders are the ones most responsible for instilling and maintaining a winning culture that everyone in the room gets on board with.
“We need a cohesive leadership group that’s made up of prominent players that have a loud voice and walk the walk and not just talk the talk,” he said. “If you have that – a good four to five guys with those qualities – the rest of the team has no option but to jump on board and fall in line. If that’s what you have, that pretty much cracks the whip on everyone else and that’s going to breed a ton of success.”
Leadership and character alone is not enough, however. Immediate concerns about the signing have cropped up primarily related to the newest Bruin’s age and diminishing returns in terms of his statistics, finishing the year with 21 goals- his lowest output since the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign.
“Feeling really well,” Backes replied when asked about the toll his rugged brand of hockey over more than a decade has taken on his body. “I think that physical style has been one of my calling cards for 10 years, and I think maybe if you start to slow down a little bit, and you get a little bit older, your intelligence and your hockey sense and your ability to think the game is accelerating maybe faster than you’re slowing down. And those types of efforts to be efficient I think make – in my world, I think it’s made me a better player, and been able to carry that physical play and pick my spots at key moments, rather than just hitting everything that moves like it’s a rugby match.”
In other words, the old horse isn’t ready for the glue factory quite yet.
“Being able to perhaps finish on certain guys on the other team and other ones, it’s not worth going the extra two, three steps out of your way to expend that energy and to go for that hit,” Backes said. “I’m 32. I’m not 52. I think there’s plenty of legs and plenty of physicality and energy left in me and the term’s been something that maybe a few people have questioned, but for me, I expect to still be at the top of my game for that last year and be a contributing member for the Boston Bruins and training differences, being able to really take care of my body, listening to it and just give everything I’ve got and I think that’s the way I’m going about it and I would expect to be really good in that fifth year still.”
All the heart and want to in the world won’t matter if the machine breaks down or the player is unable to match the previously high-end performance that he was known for as a member of the Blues who spent the last five years wearing the captain’s ‘C’.
Boston GM Don Sweeney naturally sold his signature acquisition to date as someone who will be part of a winning formula going forward, even though the more pressing need of at least one defensive piece to upgrade the back end was conspicuously absent from his list of transactions today.
“We identified David from day one as the type of player that would play with and complement Patrice and David Krejci and allow us to have flexibility, be it this year with, you know, if he wants to move to the wing in a production role or a matchup role,” Sweeney said. “You know if you look at the defensive zone starts that David Backes had over the course of his career, it’s phenomenal that he’s produced at the level he has. He’s now got the chance now to play either with Patrice or David Krejci or play amongst them in a balanced lineup that allows him to be in an offensive situation with Krejci and maybe even backup Bergeron from that standpoint. So I think it adds the balance to our group, you know. And if Ryan Spooner continues to emerge and play the way that he’s capable of playing on a consistent basis and David Backes moves to the wing we’re going to be a better organization.”
Despite some of the more advanced analytics that showed Backes’ effectiveness in positive puck possession declining, Sweeney pointed out that the veteran still represents a clear upgrade for the B’s going forward.
“We have on the horizon a number of young, skilled players that I think will benefit, as I mentioned, will continue to play with Marchand, with Bergeron, with Krejci, and now with a Backes type,” Sweeney said. “He can then slide into players that come in and identify themselves handling bigger roles, then he can slide into different positions. I just think the versatility of this player and the leadership qualities speak for themselves.
“And his production, we expect it to continue. It took a drop this year, but that’s the age-related studies that everybody looks at and realizes that you know what you’ve signed up for in this player, that if the commitment to the term and from the ownership standpoint, we were all on board. We’re trying to win. The number of players we have, as I mentioned, with the younger players, I think it’s going to be a good complement.”
Not always the most fleet of foot, Backes is one of those more powerful skaters who uses a full head of steam to drive the net and score goals through grit and will as opposed to generating a highlight reel package off the rush. As he gets older, the foot speed and quickness are sure to diminish, so Backes addressed what is likely in store with him in the lineup.
“I don’t think the game’s getting slower,” he said. “I think that it’s a fast game, but if you start to manage the puck in the right way, and you can occupy the offensive zone and do a lot of the things that teams that are heavy and control the puck and occupy zones do, it’s not a track meet up and down the ice.”
The track meet…something the Bruins have been ill-prepared to compete in for years, even as the NHL has undergone a clear paradigm shift to more of a speed/transition and skill game, is one of the chief concerns among observers and fans who saw the team often unable to match the pace and tempo of those higher-end clubs who were among those playing well into late May and June.
“With Pittsburgh winning the Cup, a team that was kind of designed on that track meet, let’s go, let’s see who can skate the fastest up and down the ice, there may be a trend or a tendency to start to build teams like that,” said Backes. “But you’ve also seen other teams in the L.A. Kings, the Boston Bruins, in recent history, win playing that heavy game, and maybe not having the fastest team, but winning every battle that you get into, being able to control the puck once you get it and then owning the important areas of the ice which is in front of the net.”
The consistent net-front presence, which is something Backes is sure to provide, is another area the Bruins have been lacking in. They’ve also lacked a consistent set of forward lines, which is something the newest free agent vowed to address, even though there was discussion about what position might have been promised to him ahead of time.
“I’m into winning games, so if Claude (Julien) thinks that we’re going to win more games with me playing wing then I’m in,” Backes said. “If he thinks that we’re going to win more games with me playing center, I’m in. Whatever he thinks, you know, I’ll do it to the best of my ability. And you know it’s one of those things where it may be schedule dependent, it may be opponent dependent, it may be dependent on a bunch of different variables, but we’re going to have a game plan to win and we’re going to go out there and execute it.”
Sweeney echoed the sentiment of being flexible and basing it on ideal matches, allowing the coaches to leverage the veteran’s flexibility.
“We’re going to let it play out,” he said. “We look at the fact that the penalty killing was an area that we needed to address. He’s really good at that.”
Center or wing? Wing or center? Don’t expect to have it figured out in July.
“The strength up the middle of the ice, as I mentioned. Ryan Spooner, it will be a great challenge for him to occupy that spot or play next to one of these centers,” Sweeney said. “The guys that emerge as being able to handle the minutes and the situations are the ones that are going to play. It’s just a real good opportunity for anybody, any younger player coming into this organization is going to be put in position to play with really unique players. And we’ll find the right complements.
“If that means David gets to move to the wall to play with one of the top two guys in a producing role, that’s okay. We’ve now been in a position where if we want to go four deep, which we generally have when we’ve had success, where’s the matchup come from the other side? The other teams may find it difficult to play against the top centers that we have. So we’re going to let it play out.”
Ultimately, there are those who will embrace Boston’s newest acquisition and what he could bring the team, even if they acknowledge that Sweeney and Co. are accepting risk by offering term and value on a player who is on the wrong side of 30. Those are entirely valid concerns, but at the same time- it is not a zero sum game. Backes is a hands-on leader who will complement Boston’s existing leadership core, several of whom tend to be a little more quiet and passive as opposed to direct and confrontational. The B’s have no problem with leaders who set the right example, but when players aren’t pulling their weight or doing the things necessary for team cohesion and success, Backes is the kind of guy who will likely get in someone’s face. He’s got the proper body of work and cachet to do it, too- whether he wears an ‘A’ on his Bruins sweater or not won’t matter one bit.
“You talk about the character piece, the leadership qualities and his willingness to want to win and it aligns with the guys that have won,” Sweeney said. “And the more we can surround our team and identify our team in that regard – now, this all being said, that our younger players have to step forward, emerge, have the opportunity to take a hold of it, and these guys are going to be the leading core to get us to where we want to go, and our younger players have to jump on board.”
Backes sees the world in relatively straight forward fashion, and that was evident when he addressed his desire to make Boston his new hockey home:
“Every time I had a conversation with someone from the organization, that kind of goosebump feeling on your arms and that emotional connection and thought process towards what it would be like to maybe have a different sweater and be able to join what they’re trying to do in Boston really just kept building,” Backes said. “And then the opportunity presented itself not too long after 11 (a.m.) struck. Once (the agent) and Don Sweeney figured out the numbers, it was let’s move on with this and sign the deal because it makes so much sense on so many levels.”
This signing might not make sense on as many levels to some, but one of Boston’s priorities in the offseason was to get tougher to play against, and they succeeded on paper with the Backes acquisition. Time will tell if it will work out as planned, but for now- one veteran is in the fold to help shore up an offense that lost Loui Eriksson’s 30 goals and strong two-way play to Vancouver.
There is still much work to be done, however, with a blue line that is still at least one key upgrade away from being playoff caliber.
The July 1st transactions were a start, but the offseason grade is still incomplete.