(Note: We're trying out some new writers before the season starts. This piece comes from Joe Copponi.)
If you were to make a list of “star players” on the Bruins, who would be the first guys to come to mind? For most people, that list would feature names like David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron.
However, there’s one name on the roster who, in spite of success before arriving in Boston, probably won’t find himself on many of those lists: David Backes.
Before coming to Boston, Backes, 33, captained the St. Louis Blues for 5 seasons, leading them to the Conference Finals in his final year, the furthest they had gone in 15 years.
So what to what can we attribute this drop-off? A change in location? Coaching? Age? Team chemistry? His place on the roster? Maybe an injury that we haven’t been made aware of?
Last season, Backes put up 38 points. This wasn’t exactly a huge drop from the 45 he put up during his last year in St. Louis; however, that slow season was preceded by 5 seasons of dancing around 60 points per year, aside from one half-season that saw him put up close to 30.
Prior to arriving in Boston, Backes had consistently been a force both offensively and defensively, receiving Selke votes in his previous 7 seasons with the Blues.
As far as injuries go, he hadn’t suffered many major injuries in his career. He’s had a handful of instances since joining the Bruins, however, the most notable being a leg injury in March that came after one of the ugliest knee buckles in recent memory.
He also suffered a head injury after a hit to the head by William Carrier of the Buffalo Sabres in March, but looked no worse for the wear after three games out.
The point of rehashing these instances is to state that it doesn’t seem like injuries are the issue here, unless of course there’s some massive secret Backes and the team are keeping from the media.
So if he’s not hurt, what has changed that has led to his drop-off? It’s a pretty simple thing: he’s not playing his position.
It’s not a new problem for the Boston Bruins: the team has too many centers.
Using mismatched parts to haphazardly create Franken-lines is as Boston as baked beans and Tom Brady fan fiction.
Backes, at his core, is a two-way player, and always has been. Putting a guy who has gotten Selke votes every year for the better part of a decade on the wing is about as good of an idea as putting a hockey team in the middle of the desert (hey, wait…).
The reason he didn’t perform as we all hoped last year isn’t that he was centered by David Krejci; it’s that he wasn’t the center himself.
If It seems like a simple solution would be to just throw him in as a center and let the goals begin raining down, it’s not quite that simple.
It’s going to take some work, as well as some trial and error, to find where exactly he fits in the lineup, and where everyone else does too. But you can’t leave a center playing on the wing and get mad at him for not performing (commonly known as the Ryan Spooner effect).
Seeing Backes be the playmaker many hoped to see when he was signed would be great, but it’s not his most important role that he has to play this coming year.
The Bruins are getting younger again this year, and that young talent is going to need leadership on and off the ice. That’s where Backes really comes in.
His history as a captain of a then-young team in St. Louis gives him unrivaled experience in leadership. Between him, Bergeron, Marchand, and, of course, Zdeno Chara, it’s fair to say that the younger half of this roster has some big shoes to fill, but also some great footsteps to follow in.
However, for the Bruins to get their money’s worth, they need more out of Backes than just leadership. They need him to return to his St. Louis-era form, and putting him back at center would put him in a better position to get there.