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David Backes has returned to center, and he should stay there

Turns out you can teach an old dog... old tricks.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Boston Bruins at Toronto Maple Leafs Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Riley Nash isn’t walking through that door.

The Bruins entered the season without a clear cut third-line center after losing the cheap, versatile Nash to the Columbus Blue Jackets on a three-year, $8.25m deal they couldn’t afford.

Perhaps the most intriguing story of the preseason was the open competition amongst prospects auditioning to take that open spot. Would two-way man Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson take the next step on his trajectory to the NHL? Would the rough-and-tumble Trent Frederic force Don Sweeney’s hand? Or would young Jack Studnicka show too much talent to pass up?

Ultimately, the Bruins management (and most folks who payed attention) agreed that the answer to all those questions was an anticlimactic “No.” That left the recently re-signed Sean Kuraly as the default man to take the job.

Through the season’s first two games, Kuraly’s third lines had surrendered 27 shot attempts while attempting just 12. They had given up 14 scoring chances while garnering only two.

Apparently, Bruce Cassidy had seen enough and decided to shuffle the deck, returning Kuraly to his familiar spot on the fourth line. Sliding over into that third-line center role was the guy who should have had it all along: David Backes.

It seems like ancient history now, but when Backes signed his well-documented five-year, $30m contract, he was under the impression that he would either be playing on the right wing with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand or where he’s ended up now, centering the third line. It’s certainly a stretch to say the Backes has earned a spot anywhere in the top six, but why wouldn’t you want to give him a look at the position he played for a decade in St. Louis while amassing 460 points?

Yes, he’s a bit slow. Yes, he’s 35. No, he’s not the player he once was.

But shifting from third-line winger to third-line center isn’t asking Backes to return to the top-line, powerhouse Selke candidate he was in his prime. The matchups are easier, the minutes are lighter, and the expectations are far lower. The typical ask of an NHL third line is to control play a reasonable amount, chip in a few goals to take the load off the top lines, and just generally avoid getting run over. Even at this stage of his career, Backes is capable of all of that at a minimum.

To that end, so far so good. The Backes edition of the third line, featuring Anders Bjork and one of Danton Heinen or Ryan Donato, has virtually broken even on shot attempts and scoring chances, surrendered zero goals, and scored one.

What’s more, Kuraly has looked like his 2017-18 self since being reinstalled on the fourth line with Noel Acciari and Chris Wagner.

So it turns out those questions about the open center spot had an obvious answer all along: Give it to the guy you signed to play there two years ago. It’s been a little while, but it’s not like Backes forgot how to play center. Even though he has very little hope of playing up to his contract, he’s still an effective power forward, and he doesn’t have to be the old David Backes to contribute in a meaningful way.

Of course we’re dealing with very small samples, and things can change very quickly in the NHL. Backes could tail off or suffer an injury. One of Frederic or Forsbacka Karlsson could be too good for the AHL and force Backes to return to the wing. But the center position should be his for the foreseeable future.

Oh by the way: Through five games with Columbus, Riley Nash has one assist and a 41.82% Corsi rating.