By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Bruins center Ryan Spooner recently summed up his 2017 introduction to the Stanley Cup Playoffs with the same level of enthusiasm he had for engaging in puck battles in the first round playoff series against Ottawa.
“Yeah, it’s fast and it’s rough and I thought I wasn’t terrible,” Spooner said in a cadence reminiscent of Steven Wright (the comedian, not the pitcher).
The problem for the Bruins is that Spooner’s description of his playoff performance was also apt to describe his regular season. Spooner had 39 points (11 goals, 28 assists) and his production dropped by 10 points from 2015-16. His faceoff percentage dipped to 38. 9 percent, and although his Corsi For percentage was a career-best 54.5, he started off in the offensive zone 62.3 percent of the team.
Spooner’s 25 years old and probably isn’t the answer to the Bruins’ third-line center question, especially considering that he has arbitration rights as a restricted free agent this summer and will be due a decent raise from the $950,000 he made on average the past two seasons.
“It’s really going to be up to him if that’s what he wants to do,” Bruins president Cam Neely said. “I hope that he realizes that he’s not as consistent as he needs to be to have a successful career that he could have with his skill set.”
The Bruins should be wary about underestimating Spooner’s skill set and seeing him slip away and thrive elsewhere. But Spooner might be expendable, especially if the Bruins could get close to equal value in a trade, because they have several internal options.
[graphiq id=”6jXErYU4rtj” title=”Ryan Spooner Full Season History” width=”600″ height=”379″ url=”https://w.graphiq.com/w/6jXErYU4rtj” ]
One of Boston’s better plans would be to move $6 million per season man David Backes to the third-line center role. The 33-year-old had a disappointing season in the eyes of many, including Neely and general manager Don Sweeney, who had plenty of excuses about adjusting to switching. Excuses do little to cover up that although Backes didn’t earn his money, he basically produced at the same rate he did in his last season with St. Louis with 38 points (17 goals, 21 assists) in 74 games. Instead of excuses, the Bruins brass should issue a message of acceptance that this is the production the Bruins can expect from Backes going forward but that Boston overpaid Backes because of his intangibles — his leadership, his physical play and his smarts.
Backes was lauded as a positive voice at the toughest points of the Bruins’ season by his teammates and he made a difference in Boston reaching the playoffs instead of folding down the stretch this season. Will he ever be a 50-point scorer again? Probably not, and the Bruins are probably going to regret devoting so much payroll to him. But they decided they needed one more veteran to keep them competitive for a playoff spot during their rebuild, and they were right.
Unfortunately, Backes never clicked with center David Krejci. Instead he played his best hockey in the spot that turns wimps into heroes — the right wing on the Brad Marchand/Patrice Bergeron line. That worked out well for this season, but moving forward, the best way for Backes to maximize his value to the Bruins is as the third-line center.
Backes had a 56.4 Corsi For percentage and started 50.3 of his shifts in the offensive zone this season. He had four points in the six-game loss to the Senators, often playing a third-line role and switching off between center and wing with Sean Kuraly in the last two games of the series.
[graphiq id=”eyY0xJODiyp” title=”David Backes Career Points, Goals, & Assists” width=”600″ height=”495″ url=”https://w.graphiq.com/w/eyY0xJODiyp” ]
Salary-cap hit aside, the Bruins will be a better team if they can shift Backes, a player of limited means at the offensive end, into a third-line role. He doesn’t have to be a full-time center, but could be help to Spooner or whichever player fills the center position as a right-wing that plays a major role on faceoffs and with his away-from-the-puck play. He needs to be a driver of a line rather a passenger on the best line in hockey.
The Bruins’ goal should be to make sure Backes doesn’t have to play more than 17 minutes per game he played last season and does it against lesser competition. If you pencil in Bergeron, Marchand, Krejci and David Pastrnak as Boston’s definite top four forwards, Sweeney should be able to fill the other top-six spots with prospects or acquisitions, if he really has this team on the right track.
The Bruins might be gun-shy about freeing Spooner to possibly thrive elsewhere, even if they’re able to get assets in return. However, they have the replacements on hand to make him expendable and could wind up being a better team by a process of subtraction.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @MattKalman.