BOSTON (CBS) – Center David Backes knew exactly why he was interested in signing with the Bruins.
“It’s a blue-collar, hard-nosed, don’t-take-crap-from anybody kind of team,” Backes said during a conference call Friday after it was announced he signed a five-year contract with a $6 million cap charge.
Backes has been in the Western Conference his whole career and only played the Bruins twice per year. So maybe he has a selective memory. But the Bruins he described certainly weren’t the Bruins teams that missed the playoffs the past two seasons.
Kudos to the Bruins for establishing a brand that can overshadow reality. When the Bruins have been at their best in their history, they’ve played the way Backes described. They haven’t played that way in recent seasons. Coincidentally, Backes has been signed to try to bring back some of that toughness and leadership, even if there’s a drop off in his production now that he’s 32, and even if he doesn’t fill the production hole left by the departure of Loui Eriksson to Vancouver.
Once he couldn’t come to terms with the St. Louis Blues after 10 years in their organization, Backes wanted a place that his style of hockey would be appreciated and an exciting place for his family to live. He found it in Boston, which was willing to give a 32-year-old who perennially is among the league leaders in hits and dropped from 58 points two years ago to 45 last season a five-year contract.
So we know what Backes wanted with the Bruins. But what did the Bruins want with Backes, especially on a contract just one year shorter than Eriksson signed with the Canucks? The answer has as much to do with the players the Bruins hope to have playing around Backes – ones that might not even be cashing a pro hockey paycheck yet – as with what Backes brings to the team.
Backes comes with his ruggedness, his dedication to the two-way game and experience. He brings versatility and an openness to play either center or wing based on the whims of coach Claude Julien. Most important, as a former Blues captain he brings experience and another player Boston’s wave of youth can learn from. General manager Don Sweeney, who said the Bruins had Backes as their No. 1 target Friday, lauded Backes for all these attributes in his own conference call.
There’s little doubt Backes will be a strong fit for the Bruins in the short term. His production will drop off because it has to, and there has to be some question about how long he can remain durable (he’s only missed 11 games the past three seasons) based on his approach to the game. The second half of this contract could be a disaster.
But Backes, who’s coming off a run to the Western Conference finals, has to understand that the Bruins are still in the infancy of what he called a “re-tool.” Any deep run in the 2017 playoffs will be a bit of a fluke with the way the Bruins are currently built. Winning teams don’t go from players like Eriksson to players like Backes. And they don’t have defense groups like what the Bruins have now. This defense corps, minus Dennis Seidenberg, now more than ever looks like Zdeno Chara and prayers to the ghost of Eddie Shore. Backes seemed to get the gist of the situation when asked for a prediction on the Bruins’ playoff fate in the season ahead.
“I think it’s going to be a very competitive team that should be able to get into the playoffs and be able to make a mark when we’re in the playoffs,” he said.
Playoffs or not, this upcoming season has to be about growth for all of the Bruins’ young players. Sweeney seemingly mentioned everyone from Ryan Spooner, Colin Miller, Joe Morrow and Frank Vatrano to Brandon Carlo and Chris Casto to Jacob Forsbacka Karlsson and Jake DeBrusk. The ones already with NHL experience have to seize a position. The rest will be arriving in the NHL on different timetables. The Bruins can’t be tempted again to add small pieces just for the goal of getting four to seven games of postseason ticket sales. They have to be open to parting with veterans for more future help if the deal is too rich to turn down.
When Mike Babcock took over as coach in Toronto, he said there would be pain. The Bruins have avoided that type of talk, but Sweeney has softly alluded to that notion.
Let’s face it, it’s going to take the Bruins a while to dig out of the hole they dug when they traded Tyler Seguin for a return that has diminished by the season and Dougie Hamilton for assets that will only pay off in the future if they pay off at all. Sweeney is wise not to meet the ludicrously high asking prices for help on defense right now because mortgaging the future for one player is a high-risk endeavor.
“Again, there’s a high acquisition cost for these types of player. I think you’re better to identify them, grow them and put them in the lineup when they’re ready to play,” Sweeney said.
Just before Steven Stamkos re-signed with Tampa Bay, this space advocated the Bruins making a run at him. The notion was that if you add a Stamkos-like talent you can be a better team now and still wait to improve the defense down the road. There are going to be teams in cap crunches in the seasons ahead with the cap probably remaining flat.
There are going to be disgruntled players and players that have to be moved available. Sweeney’s best play is still to wait until the supply is greater than the demand and then strike, using his many futures assets and maybe even part of his present roster.
However, that might take six months or a year or even 18 to 24 months. That doesn’t mean the Bruins won’t win; it just means they’ll be less likely to be slugging it out until late May. Along the way, maybe a prospect or two becomes the type of player the Bruins are shopping for. Then they become part of the core or part of a trade package. It’s a process that takes time.
If ownership is willing to subscribe to this plan, Sweeney could build the Bruins back into what they were in the early part of this decade by the time the next decade starts. Sweeney was already granted permission to let the Bruins take a step down talent-wise from Eriksson to Backes in order to mold the future better. This Bruins plan is about patience and flexibility. They still have the latter and one has to hope they have the former.
Impatience will derail that plan and probably leave Sweeney as the scapegoat regardless of who’s forcing a rush job.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @TheBruinsBlog.