By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Boston Bruins may not have had a playoff-caliber defensive corps, but they certainly had enough talent from top to bottom to be able to, at the very least, sneak into a low playoff seed. They came up just three points short of the last Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference, and as much as the defense and goaltending proved to be an issue late in the season, the Bruins also appeared to suffer in the locker room.
Call it a lack of vocal leadership, call it a lack of accountability from the players, call it a problem on the coaching staff. Whatever the cause, the 2015-16 Bruins were not all on the same page.
The team’s signing of veteran forward David Backes in the offseason is a tacit admission that the team lacked the former St. Blues captain’s brand of off-ice leadership. Bruins like captain Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, and Brad Marchand are more of the “lead by example” type, which is also important and great to have, but not as useful when the team lacks an imposing, don’t-cross-me leader like Backes.
The Bruins severely missed Shawn Thornton’s leadership in the locker room for the past two seasons, especially considering how the team collapsed down the stretch before the playoffs. Backes immediately fills that void, but also acknowledges that the Bruins’ veteran leaders need to work as a unit to keep the team focused and working better together, which was a clear issue for the past two years.
It doesn’t matter that Backes won’t wear the ‘C’ in Boston like he did in St. Louis. He needs to lead the way he knows how to lead and that goes for everyone on the team, regardless of who’s wearing what letter on their jerseys.
“I think the evolution of leadership in our sport is more of a leadership group than one guy carrying the torch for the whole leadership qualities of the team,” Backes told reporters at Bruins Media Day on Tuesday. “That being said, with Z and Bergy and Marchy and some of the older guys that have been here a little longer, those responsibilities are mostly taken by others.
“But it’s going to take everybody stepping up, and if something needs to be said, someone needs to say it, and if something needs to be done, we need to have a race to be the first one to go do it – especially the hard, thankless things that win games for us. And when we have that mentality, we’re going to have a ton of success here.”
Backes has quickly taken on the same kind of leadership role he embodied for over a decade in St. Louis, expressing confidence in the younger guys and getting them used to the added pressure of playing under the NHL spotlight while also holding them accountable in ways that haven’t existed on the Bruins in the past two seasons.
“My message to them was, ‘Just come out here and let’s have fun. You have to get comfortable being uncomfortable a little bit,'” said Backes. “You’re in new environments, new buildings, playing in front of a lot more people than you have in the past. But you’re here for a reason: because you can get the job done.”
The Bruins are depending more on the contributions of younger, less experienced players and have installed some changes in their defensive system. But for the team to really improve upon the past two seasons, it’s going to be important that everyone remains focused on the team’s goal of getting back to the playoffs and, hopefully, going on the kind of deep run that the team went on as recently as 2013. Backes will be a key component of making that a reality, perhaps the most important one.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.