By Matt Kalman
Although it’s great that Bruins forward David Backes is going to have surgery to hopefully correct the issues he’s having with diverticulitis, his departure from the lineup couldn’t have come at a worse time.
Backes hasn’t been the producer the Bruins thought they were getting when they signed him to a five-year, $30 million contract on July 1, 2016. But what Backes lacks in finishing touch these days he tries to make up for in leadership and toughness. And as this season really hits its stride, the Bruins need every ounce of the latter they can get.
If you watched the Bruins battles a trio of the NHL’s heaviest teams — San Jose, Los Angeles and Columbus — the past three games, you saw what the game plan is against a Boston lineup featuring four rookies, a second-year defenseman (Brandon Carlo) and a third-year forward who’s still just 21 (David Pastrnak). Teams are using their physicality to intimidate and throw some of the Bruins’ best skill players off their game.
Against the Sharks and Kings, Pastrnak was blasted several times. He’s the type of player who’ll try to give as much as he takes, but at 188 pounds he’s not causing anyone to quake in their boots.
The rookie trio of Anders Bjork, Jake DeBrusk and Charlie McAvoy also had their hands full with heavier teams. McAvoy often had to settle for just coming out even in puck battles down low, DeBrusk was throwing his weight around all over the ice but often wound up on the wrong side of the puck against heavier players, and Bjork’s game has drifted to the perimeter since the competition has gotten more intimidating. Then there’s the fourth rookie, Sean Kuraly, who might’ve had the willingness and necessary strength to become a physical force –at least he did before he began a parade to the penalty box with three minors in the win against the Sharks. Since then Kuraly has looked unsure about what he can get away with while bringing some grit.
“I don’t know if they circle us on the roster … because there’s definitely enough toughness in here and guys that play hard and through guys that that’s never an easy game for anybody. I think we pride ourselves on being a tough team to play against,” defenseman Kevan Miller said. “But definitely when you go through our lineup and see you a newer guy, you want to make sure that they learn that it’s hard to play in this league, and I think everybody knows that. I think teams are playing hard through us for sure, and I guess you’d expect that.”
There was hardly any pushback from the Bruins in response to the physical play of their overly zealous opponents, until the Blue Jackets decided to mess with captain Zdeno Chara. Unfortunately, Chara fighting to defend himself took the Bruins’ most important defensive player off the ice for five minutes. Later in the game Miller thought Torey Krug needed someone to stand up for him, and again the Bruins lost an important defender, this time for the rest of the game.
Coach Bruce Cassidy didn’t want to criticize the response of his two rugged defensemen.
“It’s just part of the fabric of the team. We’re never going to get upset, you can always dissect it. But any time you can build a culture of ‘we’re going to have each other’s back,’ that’s a positive,” he said.
But in the back of the coach’s mind, he has to be thinking there are better options for these fights that two players who are so integral to the Bruins’ odds of success. Now Backes leaves the lineup and the Bruins again have one less player dressed who’s willing to drop the gloves or blow up a defenseman emerging his defensive zone. Even if the willingness is there, weight and strength deficiencies between the Bruins’ young players and the men with the puck on the other team leave Boston unable to make the necessary physical play or skull-busting response.
Injuries might have put the Bruins in a position where they have no choice to insert some grit to the lineup. Matt Beleskey is supposed to be a power forward, and it looks like he’ll be back in the lineup against Vegas on Thursday. Jordan Szwarz, who described himself as a “gritty guy” and “tenacious player” at practice Wednesday, might get a chance to make his Bruins debut and see if at 26 his game will finally translate to the NHL.
No one expects the Bruins to suddenly be a team of Terry O’Reilly’s blasting guys left and right out there. But there has to be more rage when it comes to obtaining and retaining possession of the puck, a better job done to make sure that any transgression by an opponent against the Bruins’ best players is answered with some act of physical punishment, and that the Bruins’ best players aren’t being stuffed in the penalty box for large chunks of the game just because they had to be the ones to respond.
The Bruins would like their offense to have more balance; they’re gritty game needs to be more spread out as well. Without Backes, that could mean some newcomers to the lineup throwing their weight around or even some rookies finding ways to play above their weight class and experience level.