Gone are the days when David Backes would pop in 20 goals and record 50 points a season. The soon-to-be 35 year-old forward has had to adapt to a faster-paced NHL and his changing abilities as he’s gotten older.
Backes has had a difficult time finding a regular role in the Boston Bruins’ lineup this season, even spending time as a healthy scratch during year that’s seen him score only five times in 54 games. But on Tuesday night, he again found himself taking up a job on the team that started last week: enforcer.
It’s not your traditional enforcer role, of course. He hasn’t become Troy Crowder or anything, but after a conversation with head coach Bruce Cassidy during their west coast trip two weeks ago, Backes has taken to being the Bruins’ bodyguard when needed. The conversation was about roles he could play that would have a bigger impact on games “whether that’s with my gloves off or my gloves on,” he noted.
After Marcus Johansson left the game following a big hit from Micheal Ferland in the first period of Tuesday’s win, Backes sought out the Carolina Hurricanes forward and dropped the gloves. It was his third fight in his last four games. Before his scrap with Micheal Haley last week, Backes had one fight in his previous 70 regular season and playoff games.
“I don’t know if it’s an enforcer role,” Backes said after Tuesday’s win. “There’s times during a game or during a season when you need to step up for your teammates. Tonight’s hit, it was a hard, clean hit, but if guys are running at our skilled guys we need to make them accountable. I felt it was an opportunity for me to step up and you know, fill that role.”
Backes, who’s suffered three concussions since signing with the Bruins in 2016, was well-aware of the potential long-term threats head injuries pose, and voiced those concerns back in November. But now? Now that he’s found this new role for however long it lasts? He’s not worried.
“My wife probably does, but that can’t be a thought in your head when you’re playing in the NHL,” Backes said. “She might worry about me driving over 65 mph on the turnpike, too, and a potential car accident, so whatever else, that could come. You look at the stats and you’re not as prone to concussions actually fighting as you are from whiplash or side hits or shoulders to the face or elbows to the face. It’s a calculated decision. If I’m going to stay part of this team and stay part of a winning team, that’s maybe going to be part of my role and I’m OK with it. Sticking up for each other, sticking together, it’s a staple of what we do here.”
Cassidy said he’s hoping this isn’t an every night thing for Backes, but as is the unspoken word in hockey, sticking up for your teammates goes a long way inside the dressing room and among the coaching staff. The reward outweighs the damage in a sport where there’s already plenty of assumed risk.
“Listen, they’re human beings first, and when you coach them every day that’s always a concern,” said Cassidy. “But David, I think, is grabbing onto an area of the lineup where he feels he can contribute. So, we really appreciate that as a staff and the players do, too, that he’s putting himself in harm’s way for the good of the team, and that’s leadership.
Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.