The Boston Bruins Tarnished the Career of David Backes

David Backes

David Backes has been one of the most notorious names in the NHL in the last year. Last season, the 11-year veteran was put to shame by the Boston Bruins. He fell to the bottom of the well at the end of the season, thanks to poor play, lack of use, and a handful of healthy scratches. His absence from nine of the team’s postseason games only added to his downfall. It polished off a trend that had been forming since Backes left the St. Louis Blues for Boston in 2016.

Ever since he joined the Bruins, Backes’ reputation completely inverted itself. He went from one of the league’s best top-six centres to a washed-up has-been that wasn’t good enough for the top-end Bruins lineup. At least, the latter was the sentiment around him come the 2019 summer. Many called for the Bruins to buy out his contract to clear cap space for an actual competent player or trade Backes away. Boston did neither, though, and instead clung on to the perceived-overrated Backes for most of the 2019-20 season. His play was limited to just 22 games all year, though, spending most of the season wallowing away in the press box.

Looking at the fine details, this is truly absurd. Backes is now seen by many as one of the league’s worst players: a reputation that was only emphasized by his treatment from Boston. There is little to back his lack of use in Boston and it only spits on the ending to what is, really, a career to be proud of.

David Backes Deserves a Much Better End

Before Boston

It’s important to realize exactly where Backes stood before he made the bold decision to move to Boston. It’s hard to say that he was one of the best centres in the league but his impact on the Blues lineup was very impressive.

Backes was drafted by the Blues in the second round of the 2003 NHL Entry Draft. He would go on to play three years of college before finally making the NHL roster at the start of the 2006-07 season. The then 22-year-old Backes was more than just a top-prospect, though: he was the symbol of the Blues early-2000s rebuild. Standing at 6’3″ (191 cm) and weighing well over 200 lbs (98 kg) in any listing, Backes’ sturdy, power-forward style seemed like the perfect new addition to a Blues franchise that was losing players like Doug Weight, Keith Tkachuk, and Bill Guerin.

Locked In

As luck would have it, Backes lived up to his expectations perfectly. In his rookie season, he netted 23 points in 49 games, embracing the gritty, hard-working play that the Blues were dying for. He became a fixture of the Blues top-six the following season and, despite a sophomore slump, continued to excite fans. He simply was too much to handle on the ice, bringing terrific strength and determination to every game. His ‘lead by example’ style even earned him the Blues captaincy before the 2011-12 season; a role that had almost always belonged to hard-working big-men like Chris Pronger, Al MacInnis, and Backes’ predecessor Eric Brewer.

With the C on his jersey, Backes would record at least 20 goals and 50 points in each of his next three seasons, save for the lockout year of 2012-13 when he was on pace for 48. While they’re not jaw-dropping numbers, Backes’ ability was unmatched. He seemed to be the modern-day ideal of the high-end power-forward. With blossoming wingers T.J. Oshie, Alex Steen, and David Perron at his disposal, Backes turned the Blues top-six into a formidable force. He stopped the rebuild dead in its tracks and put the Blues back on top of the league. Despite not being the star, Backes was the fan-favourite in St. Louis. He was Blues hockey.

Heartbreak

And then… he left. After trouble with contract negotiations in St. Louis, Backes decided to chase the money and signed a five-year, $6 million deal with Boston. It was a contract that St. Louis both couldn’t and wouldn’t sign and one that seemed incredibly selfish – but maybe a little understandable – by all accounts; at least in the eyes of St. Louis diehards.

The signing put into works the sour taste that has since become associated with Backes. Backes left the Blues on the back of a fairly weak, 45-point season that just didn’t seem like him. To the joy of the now spiteful Blues fans, the downward spiral seemed to continue in his first year with Boston: with 38 points. It came back a bit the following year, with Backes on pace for just-under 50 points, but his third year in Boston, the 2018-19 season, saw Backes score a career-low 20 points in 70 games.

It was all-in-all a seemingly perfectly negative trendline. Backes left the safety of the Blues, where he was so proudly built up, for a more realistic spot in Boston. He clearly couldn’t handle the unsupported role and fell to the bottom of the barrel as a result. At least, that’s what became popularly understood. But Backes’ performance in Boston was far from what it’s made up to be. While he wasn’t what he was in St. Louis, Backes’ work deserved much more respect.

Behind the Scenes

2016-17

Backes has always been a true two-way talent and his first year in Boston, the 2016-17 season, reflected that as perfectly as any of his in St. Louis. His netting of 17 goals marked his offence, especially considering only two came on the power-play, but his underlying numbers were much more noteworthy. Among the 20 players to spend at least 500 minutes of ice time with Boston that year, Backes tied for sixth in xGF/60. He tied with Bruins-favorite David Krejci with an admirable 3.27.

It was a respectable first start, with all signs pointing towards Backes being more-than-worthy of second-line minutes – albeit on an admittedly shallow Bruins lineup. What backs this is Backes’ xGA/60, which ranked seventh among the same group at an admirably-baseline 2.14. While not worth $6 million in cap space, his 2016-17 was a performance that showed Backes wasn’t losing his step with the move to Boston. In fact, nearly all of his numbers were much better than those of his final year in St. Louis.

Backes received strong second-line minutes and power-play time as a result, more than appropriate for the prowess he brought to the lineup.

2017-18

Backes proved to only improve the following year in an attempt to stifle any doubt. Again among players with at least 500 minutes of ice time, Backes ranked fifth in xGF/60 in the 2017-18 season. His impressive 3.54 was ahead of Krejci, Jake Debrusk, and newcomer/star defenceman Charlie McAvoy.

Backes wasn’t comfortable with one of the best offensive impacts on the team, though, so he went out to tally the best xGA/60 of any Bruins forward that year; only second among the 500-minutes group mentioned, behind defenceman Matt Grzelcyk.

It was again another impressive season that saw Backes bring a huge push to the Boston lineup. His worth as a second-liner was more than notable, although his season was hindered by a nagging elbow injury and concussion. Still, all of the signs point towards Backes’ on-ice value being impeccable through the season.

His usage didn’t reflect this, though. His average ice time fell two minutes, placing him in more of a third-line role, and his special-teams usage dropped significantly.

2018-19

With a decreasing reputation and decreasing ice time, David Backes set out to again improve, with an xGF/60 and xGA/60 that again ranked him among the top-10 in Boston: eighth and fourth respectively. Backes’ numbers were incredibly respectable. His ranking, though, is overshadowed by a terrific, Stanley Cup-calibre Bruins lineup that saw booms from all of their star forwards.

And despite being firmly apart of this dominant offence, the thought around Backes was not one of a dominantly consistent, reliable second-liner. By the end of the year, it was one of a washed-up, useless fourth-liner; one better placed in the press box than on the ice. Backes’ average ice time per game dropped by over three minutes from the season prior, down to barely 13 minutes per game. In the last 20 games of the season he appeared in, this fell even more. His use on the power-play was also cut down significantly and his penalty-kill presence dropped to zero. This despite his continually impressive offensive and defensive metrics. He averaged only 13:02 of ice time each game throughout the season as a whole, a career-low.

2019-20

The 2019-20 season was the icing on the cake. Backes was simply not apart of the picture in Boston anymore. It seemed like they were a Cup-calibre team that he simply couldn’t make. His usage dropped so much that he doesn’t even fit in the 500-minute restriction set. The margins need to be lowered all the way to 136 minutes to include Backes.

Still, of the 24 players to play at least 136 minutes with the Bruins this season, Backes had the 11th best xGF/60, with a great 2.61, and by far the best xGA/60 with a 1.36. In fact, his 1.36 xGA/60 was the best of anyone in the NHL this season. Seriously.

Is the trend apparent yet? In the 2019-20 season, David Backes averaged only nine minutes of ice time a game, an absolutely pitiful tally for any 35-year-old veteran; much less one that puts up some of the best offensive and defensive numbers in the league.

What This All Says

This all seems long-winded but it’s simply the best way to show that David Backes is far from the fourth-line has-been that many make him out to be. Over the course of the last few seasons, he’s instead continued to be the incredibly reliable, second-line talent that he was in St Louis. Each year, Backes provided a spark that was among the best on an incredible Bruins lineup and each year, his use fell further-and-further.

Backes is not another case study of age breaking down a star. It’s instead the embodiment of every player’s deepest, darkest fear when they go to sign with new teams. The overpayment on his deal served to overshadow his great performance and, really, ruin his career.

The sour taste he put in fans mouths after leaving St Louis was only worsened by a Bruins team that dropped him down a peg year-after-year. Instead of his worth being recognized, Backes was used in accordance to his public perception; something that only worsened said perception.

This isn’t to talk down on a Bruins franchise that has become a Cup-calibre team even without David Backes’ impact. It’s instead to layout the prowess that Backes has carried throughout his career. Backes matched the great two-way play he showed off in St. Louis in Boston. It is a talent that has earned him 950 NHL games and tarnishing his chance at 1000 games, because of out-of-line assumptions by fans, would be spitting in the face of a player that’s earned plenty of respect, and become a Blues legend, through 14 seasons of incredibly reliable play.

Thank you to Evolving Hockey for all advanced stats used in this piece.

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