By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
For two games in a row, David Backes has skated in Bruce Cassidy's top six, and to the right of Jake DeBrusk and David Krejci. Backes even scored a goal in his first game in that spot, a 2-1 victory over the Buffalo Sabres last Saturday.
And speaking with the media after Tuesday's 4-0 win over the Wild, Cassidy didn't seem eager to break up that trio just yet.
"I think we’re going to let it play out and see how he does, see how the group does," Cassidy said of Backes on line two. "Sometimes it’s a product of how the other lines doing. If you move it around you’re affecting now two lines, so right now we’re going to stick with it. We knew we had some heavier games. Minnesota’s a heavier team, Washington, so balancing it a bit with him up there we thought could also help his game, see more pucks.
"So, right now we’re going to stick with it."
This is seemingly big news, if only because David Backes was absolutely dead and buried some eight months ago.
This was a player coming off back-to-back seasons in which he fell down the Boston forward depth chart, ending his postseason as a fourth-line player for Cassidy's club. Backes actually found a way to end it on an even worse note, by the way, ending his season by way of a concussion suffered at the hands of the Lightning's J.T. Miller.
Given the concussion history of Backes, the future seemed uncertain. Bruins general manager Don Sweeney held out hope that Backes could return to the 20-goal, 50-point mark that he reached five times during his decade in St. Louis. You could almost hear the scoff from the assembled media, and if it wasn't vocalized, their eyes did the talking. Sweeney also decided that he was going to put that same 20-goal, 50-point potential on the block as the Bruins pursued options named Ilya and John, only to find themselves without a suitor, and seemingly 'stuck' with an odd-fitting puzzle piece.
Again, dead and buried.
To everybody besides David Backes, at least.
Speaking with Backes before the start of the season, I asked him straight-up about what it was like to be involved in trade speculation just two years into a five-year, $30 million contract designed to see him retire as a Bruin. It wasn't fun. Considering nobody pulled the trigger on a deal, I asked him if it was frustrating to see and hear people treat him as if he was a lost cause or that he couldn't play in today's NHL. I thought he gave a pretty great answer, all things considered, bringing up the fact that he likely hits the 20-goal and 50-point mark a season ago if not for an illness that required the removal of some insides (gross) and then a rogue skate blade that sliced his leg wide open (also gross).
Do the Bruins still actively look to trade Backes if he hits those marks and becomes a pivotal depth piece and all-situation third-line contributor? It's a surprisingly fair question.
But the opportunity to be that player had to be there. It was never going to be there with Backes logging fourth-line minutes like he had for the majority of the first half of this season. Nor was he ever going to bring proper (read as: justified) value as a $6 million a year fourth-line banger. The fact that the Bruins had glaring holes on their second-line right wing and third-line center -- two spots the Bruins believed Backes could thrive in upon his signing -- also hurt. And in more ways than one.
So here we are, with now both the latest and best chance at salvaging Backes and turning him back into who the B's thought they were acquiring from the Blues in 2016, at least from a pure production standpoint.
And through two games, the on-ice results for Backes with Krejci and DeBrusk have been... slightly underwhelming.
In 25:06 of five-on-five play together over the last two games, the Bruins have been outshot 13-9 with DeBrusk-Krejci-Backes on the ice, and out-chanced 10-7. They've yet to surrender a goal, but they've also yet to score one (the aforementioned Backes goal came with Brad Marchand on the ice, not DeBrusk). Given what the Bruins were going against (an Eichel-less Sabres group and a dead tired Wild squad), that's kinda frustrating.
You could see the line's success in spurts last night as they did their part to pin the Wild into their own zone, sure, but it never quite felt as if Backes supported DeBrusk with that game-breaking dynamic the line has needed all season, as the speed and timing element of it all was noticeably off. But this is something Cassidy subtly acknowledged about that combination last Saturday, saying this was going to be more a line-rush line than what Backes has played with this season, which may not exactly play to his strengths in 2019.
At the same time, though, it's not as if the Bruins are flush with alternatives.
It's become clear Cassidy doesn't view Ryan Donato (just 10:30 of time on ice in a game that was over 20 minutes into action last night) as a fit there. I'm not sure he even believes that Donato is NHL ready. Danton Heinen has had his chances on the second line, but has failed to stick. Joakim Nordstrom is currently roaming the ninth floor in a walking boot. Cassidy also said that he's more inclined to try and make it work with this group, meaning an AHL recall seems unlikely.
So, maybe this... works?
Again, there's no way you can positively spin Backes the Fourth Liner into a win for the Bruins. Especially when the current construct with Sean Kuraly, Noel Acciari, and Chris Wagner finding some noticeable chemistry as a potential 'starter' for the Bruins. Nor does Backes seem capable of playing in the middle on Boston's still-unsolved third line.
At the very worst, this line with Backes on Krejci's right has yet to look like a liability. It's not dominant, but it's not hopeless. And if it helps spark some offensive creativity or chances back into the 34-year-old winger's game (Backes is currently averaging 0.92 points per 60 minutes of five-on-five play, the worst mark of his last eight seasons, and third-worst 0.46 goals per 60 minutes), that's really just a bonus for a team that's still in need of a right winger and viable home in their lineup for No. 42.
In the case of both, it sure beats the alternatives. For Backes, it's better than being dead and buried as an immovable anchor. And for the Bruins, who are rolling for the first time all year, it beats rotating a different skater on line two every night.