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Fluto Shinzawa | On Hockey

Bruins give ex-Blues captain David Backes five-year deal

David Backes, a 10-year NHL veteran, had 21 goals and 24 assists last season.USA Today file

David Backes had a bridge to sell. The Bruins were in the market.

With five years and $30 million as bait, general manager Don Sweeney reeled in Backes on Friday, officially making him the Blues’ former captain.

Part of Sweeney’s job is to procure reinforcements to complement Patrice Bergeron, Tuukka Rask, David Krejci, Brad Marchand, and Zdeno Chara, his primary strongmen, until their successors are ready to execute their share of grunt work. Backes is another piece for Sweeney to insert while he waits for Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo, Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, Zach Senyshyn, and Jake DeBrusk, among others, to spit out their pacifiers and replace them with mouthguards.


The trouble with bridges, though, is they tend to be long, expensive, and subject to wear and tear.

Backes is 32, older than every member of his new core group except for the 39-year-old Chara. He will be the team’s fifth-highest-paid player in 2016-17. Backes plays a heavy, rugged, and grinding game that is not friendly to bones and flesh. Backes will be 36 years old upon completion of the final year of his contract. How Backes’s game matures against time and abuse remains to be seen.

“I’m 32, not 52,” Backes said during a conference call. “I have plenty of legs, physicality, and energy left in me.”

During five-on-five play in 2015-16, Backes scored 1.35 points per 60 minutes, the lowest rate of his career and a sharp dropoff from his 2.15 pace in 2014-15. Such dips are not out of place for players of Backes’s age and those whose coaches asked as much as Ken Hitchcock did of his captain.

The Bruins believe Backes will be more effective as a complementary center to Bergeron and Krejci. Depending on matchups, Backes could be the No. 3 center, unleashed on third pairings and free of difficult defensive assignments. If need be, Claude Julien could deploy Backes as a right wing with Marchand and Bergeron in shutdown situations. Or Backes could assume the widebody role formerly filled by Jarome Iginla and Nathan Horton on Krejci’s flank, where he could bang bodies, chip pucks out, and plant himself in front of the net.


The concern is how much longer Backes can go. Doug Armstrong, his former boss, knows Backes best of any of the league’s 30 GMs. Five years was not a length Armstrong wanted to explore.

“David’s a great player. He’s been a great Blue. I wish him nothing but the best,” Armstrong said during a conference call. “But when you project out long term, it was problematic for me, personally, to project out that far with players. There’s analytical data that shows where players play at their peak. We wanted to stay within a window. We were ready to stretch that window, but only to a certain level.”

The Blues will miss their captain. But they were in position to let Backes walk because of younger forwards such as Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz, and Robby Fabbri — all draft picks, by the way. The Bruins’ young forwards are not as advanced as their Blues counterparts, and might never reach their status. It’s why Sweeney needed to give Backes the term that scared Armstrong off.

Which leads to a curious thing — why Sweeney paid market price (big term, that is) for Backes while practicing caution with Loui Eriksson. The ex-Bruin signed a six-year, $36 million contract with Vancouver. Like Backes, Eriksson will be 36 in the final season of his deal. With Eriksson gone, the Bruins are down their net-front presence on the No. 1 power-play unit, a regular penalty killer, and a smart, versatile, and durable five-on-five wing.


“Term is always something that everybody is concerned about with all of our players,” Sweeney said. “That was something we felt we needed to be careful about.”

Backes plays center, which Eriksson does not. But age, term, and dough were a wash. Style of play was not.

Eriksson is an efficient checker, excellent with his stick, and smart at finding soft spots in coverage. Backes plays with none of Eriksson’s subtlety. Backes is abrasive, belligerent, and noisy when he slams bodies and barrels to the front of the net. In the room, Backes is a commanding presence while Eriksson quietly goes about his business.

“It’s a blue-collar, hard-nosed, don’t-take-crap-from-anybody type of team,” Backes said of his new employer during a conference call. “That’s kind of the way I feel I’ve built my game in 10 years in the league.”

Backes’s style, more than Eriksson’s, will resonate with the customers filling TD Garden and buying steakhouse-price concessions. The Bruins bosses believe this matters. Anecdotally, my sense among the fan base is less anger and more disengagement. It’s dangerous when your customers don’t care.

Backes will help reignite some of the Black-and-Gold resonance. He will not help move pucks, clear bodies from in front of Tuukka Rask, or blast away from the offensive blue line. The Bruins’ most urgent need was a blue-line upgrade. They’ve fallen short, unable to meet trade asks because they don’t have the equivalent of Taylor Hall or Shea Weber and weren’t willing to deal picks or prospects.


The best they could do was re-up John-Michael Liles to a one-year, $2 million extension. In 17 games since arriving from Carolina, Liles didn’t do much to blow anyone’s hair back.

So Sweeney will continue to explore defensive upgrades, as futile as they may be. In the meantime, Sweeney made an expensive investment in a player with long-term red flags. He bought a bridge.

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto.