By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- Since signing with the Bruins, forward David Backes has been careful when speaking about his role.
He's expressed willingness to play center or wing and also a desire to play anywhere in Boston's top nine. Training camp and the season are still a long ways away and he doesn't want to start lobbying coach Claude Julien (at least publicly) about his spot.
Backes stuck to his talking points last week, when he discussed several topics with the media after a tour of a MSPCA facility in Jamaica Plain. When asked about the potential of a line of Backes, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand being a killer for opponents to play against, Backes skated past the notion that he should be placed in that enviable right-wing spot. But Backes, who said he spoke to Bergeron and Marchand twice each before July 1, made sure to credit the Bruins' dynamic duo for playing a hand in his signing with the Bruins.
"Being an outsider, we need to have a little confession that Marchand's kind of a guy that gets under everybody's skin and I was no different. And then talking to him a little bit in the interview process before July 1, hang up the phone and had to kind of take a deep breath and go 'that little disturber pain the in butt, he's actually a pretty good guy,'" Backes said. "Those guys end up being the best teammates. And a guy like Bergeron, you play against him and he's just always in the right spot and never making mistakes. And those types of guys, again, are guys you want on your team, guys you love to go to war with, and you keep going down the list."
It's refreshing to hear Backes avoid the specifics about his wishes for his place in the Bruins lineup. First, because he doesn't think that his five-year, $30 million contract comes with the right to be a part-time coach. Second, because he might know as well as anyone that he doesn't have the right to be the Bruins' first option to complete the Bergeron-Marchand line and if Backes is the regular right wing in that spot, the team is in trouble.
Backes is 32 and a solid all-around player. But if the Bruins were looking for someone to complement Bergeron and Marchand and make the lineup top-heavy again, they would've just hung onto Loui Eriksson for one more season. Because no matter which way you shake it, the Bruins are not a better team after the Eriksson-to-Backes swap except for the fact that they now have some versatility and fallback options if there are major injuries.
Starting out, Backes gives the Bruins an important fill-in should David Krejci report to camp in subpar shape after offseason hip injury. Even if everything in Krejci's rehabilitation goes perfect, he might not be 100 percent up to speed until weeks or even months into the season. Backes can pick up the slack better than Ryan Spooner or anyone the Bruins had in their organization before the Backes signing.
Beyond Backes' ability to be Krejci until Krejci is ready, the newly signed former St. Louis captain should be used to give the Bruins balance. He can serve as a net-front presence on the power play and steadying force on the penalty kill (albeit with less skill than Eriksson) and fill in on the wing in the top six when necessary. But his main job should be a stabilizer for the Bruins' third line, either as a complement to Spooner, with the two changing up between center and wing the way Spooner and Chris Kelly used to, or as Spooner's replacement if the younger forward doesn't show the necessary growth in his game after his breakout 2015-16 season.
Backes, though, has no business becoming the top-line right wing. The last thing the Bergeron-Marchand pair needs is another two-way player with less speed and declining offensive numbers. Bergeron and Marchand have the ability to lift the production and performance of their third linemate like few duos in the NHL. The Bruins aren't paying Backes to benefit from that type of effect; they're paying him to be a driver both on the ice and in the locker room.
That spot to the right of Bergeron should be reserved for a young player like Frank Vatrano or David Pastrnak, a player still learning the ropes of the two-way game but with an immense offensive upside. Tyler Seguin and Reilly Smith enjoyed the fruits of that type of relationship and it has paid off for them both, although in sweaters without a spoked-B. Even Jimmy Hayes, who should be revitalized while realizing his NHL career could circle the drain if he doesn't turn it around this season, might deserve the Marchand-Bergeron boost in the fall, if for no other reason than the Bruins can't afford to be a one-line team again.
The only way Backes should become the Bruins' top-line right wing is if he's struggling and needs a jumpstart, or if the alternatives are struggling and holding back the club. In that case, so many things will have gone wrong that it won't matter what alignment the Bruins use because with a top-heavy forward corps and a defense corps weaker than last year's, they won't be going anywhere anyway.
The goal should not be to see if the $30 million spent on Backes will give the Bruins another one-line or five-forward attack. It should be to see if $30 million spent on Backes can give the Bruins balance and depth, even if the talent drop-off in the wake of Eriksson's exit is going to be tough to overcome.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @TheBruinsBlog.
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