It did not matter to David Backes that he was in Alex Pietrangelo’s wedding in July.
On Sept. 9, in Team USA’s World Cup of Hockey exhibition opener against Canada, Backes spotted Pietrangelo trying to move the puck out of the right corner of his zone. Backes lined up his former St. Louis teammate and ran the defenseman over once he got rid of the puck. Pietrangelo, who succeeded Backes as the Blues’ captain, lost his footing, bounced into the boards, and fell backside first onto the Nationwide Arena ice.
“It was actually surprising,” said Backes. “He’s seen me hit a few guys over the years. The fact he didn’t get rid of the puck sooner was a little surprising to me. But we had different jerseys on, so I’m going to go through him. If I’m swinging away from hits, I’m close to useless out there. I need to make sure I’m establishing a physical presence, especially in the role that I have on this team as a fourth-line center. I need to bring that element to this group. That was an opportunity to do it.”
A day later, when informed of Backes’s comment, Pietrangelo rolled his eyes and threatened retaliation on his good friend.
“Wait till we play them,” Pietrangelo said with a smile. “It’s game on. No friends out there.”
On Tuesday, in the Americans’ 3-2 exhibition-finale win over Finland, Backes centered the fourth line between Justin Abdelkader and defenseman-turned-wing Dustin Byfuglien. Backes logged 13:28 of ice time, including 2:03 on the penalty kill, as fourth-line pivot and man-down specialist. Something will have gone very wrong if Backes is filling the same position in Boston.
The Bruins did not invest $30 million in the ex-Blues captain over five years to play him on the fourth line. Backes will be a go-to player, perhaps as the No. 2 right wing alongside David Krejci in the right-shot widebody role once played by Jarome Iginla and Nathan Horton. Backes could take late-game shifts with Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron to give the Bruins a stifling defensive line.
Or he could be the No. 3 center behind Bergeron and Krejci, moving Ryan Spooner to left wing. Backes will be a net-front presence on the power play, a regular penalty killer, and always counted on to bring the pain.
“He’s one of the best two-way centers,” Pietrangelo said. “He’s the best net-front guy I’ve ever seen. I’ve never seen a guy be able to tip a puck as well as he can. He does everything. He scores goals. He makes plays. His biggest thing is being able to play the defensive side of the game. He’s a guy who can shut down anybody. He plays big minutes on the penalty kill, power play. If you’re looking for a guy who can play in all situations, Dave’s going to be the guy.”
Regardless of his on-ice role, the Bruins will consider Backes a leader, even if he has yet to play a game in Black and Gold.
In the Bruins’ postmortem, the bosses did not like how the team shriveled in big moments. Consider the 6-2 season-opening dud against Winnipeg, the 5-1 train wreck against Montreal in the Winter Classic, and the 6-1 flop against Ottawa in Game No. 82. Part of the diagnosis was a shortage of character. Nobody around the league believes Backes is lacking in that category.
He is not wearing a letter for Team USA. But the Americans made sure to acknowledge Backes as a member of the leadership group along with Ryan Kesler, Ryan McDonagh, and Zach Parise. Joe Pavelski is the captain, while Ryan Suter and Patrick Kane are the alternates. Backes fits the profile of a Bruin: rugged, grinding, vocal, and willing to lay out an opponent, even one to which he raised a glass in the summer.
“Heavy and recognizing when we need momentum-changing shifts and bring that sort of energy to the group,” Backes (game-high five hits against the Finns) said of his international identity. “There’s still plenty of skill on that fourth line to produce offense. But first things first, and that’s making sure we’re making the right play, energizing the guys, making sure we know what’s needed for the group at the time, and putting the group first. That’s the mentality everybody needs.”
The concern is Backes’s skating, especially over the term of his contract. While Backes is a powerful skater, it takes him time to accelerate to cruising speed. In comparison, Pavelski’s turbos promptly launch him from standstill to full flight.
In that way, World Cup prep has been good for Backes to ramp up his pace so he’ll be ready for Bruins camp and the start of the season.
“It’s been great,” Backes said. “The tempo, right off the get-go, it’s not 60 guys in camp, 30 guys on the ice. Everyone’s a world-class player in this room and on the ice. With six coaches and the tempo we’ve been going at, I think the preparation for the season is better than any training camp could be. I’m excited for that. We’ll keep working on our team game. I’ll keep working on my personal game as well. Then we’ll get to Boston and start the team games. But we’ve got a couple tasks to accomplish here first.”
Matthews, Laine have all the tools
Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine have tough company to follow. The 1-2 picks in the 2016 draft are looking up to Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, the first two selections in 2015. McDavid and Eichel set a high standard.
In just 45 games last season because of a broken collarbone, McDavid made it known he will be quick to challenge Sidney Crosby as the best center in the league. McDavid ripped it up for 16 goals and 32 assists. Eichel enjoyed better health than McDavid, as the North Chelmsford native scored 24 goals and 32 assists in 81 games.
It would not be surprising if Matthews and Laine bypassed their predecessors’ plateaus.
Matthews, nabbed first by Toronto, has been excellent in the World Cup for Team North America. He is a natural center. But the coaches have moved Matthews to wing (left against Europe, right against the Czech Republic) because of the roster’s strength up the middle. Matthews has looked just fine out of position. The left-shot Matthews has been strong on the puck, aware on the walls, and quick to enter the high-danger areas. Matthews, who turned 19 on Saturday, already looks like Anze Kopitar.
“He’s poised beyond his years,” said North America coach Todd McLellan. “He has the ability to play so well on both sides of the puck. He plays well in traffic. There’s a lot going on around him and he still maintains possession. He’s got vision. I like the idea that he’s willing to shoot the puck. There’s zero hesitation on my behalf or the coaching staff’s behalf to put him on the ice. He’s responsible all over and he makes pretty darn good plays.”
Matthews’s game doesn’t emphasize scoring goals. Laine’s game does. In Finland’s final exhibition game against Team USA, Laine made one of the best goalies in the world look helpless.
Laine, Winnipeg’s No. 2 overall selection, settled the puck at the left circle. Jonathan Quick had Laine’s release lined up. But Laine snapped the puck off his blade with such velocity and violence that Quick had no chance of getting it in his glove.
The 18-year-old is already a monster at 6 feet 5 inches and 206 pounds. Laine could peak at an Alex Ovechkin-like 239 pounds. Laine doesn’t run over opponents or rip off unstoppable one-timers like Ovechkin. But Laine accelerates and snaps off wristers like the Great Eight. It will not take Laine long to score 40 goals on a deep Winnipeg roster.
“He played his best game in these three exhibition games,” Finland coach Lauri Marjamaki said after the 3-2 loss to the Americans. “He was good for us. Of course, he got a goal for him. His confidence is getting better and he’s using his strengths in the tournament.”
Not so fast on backchecking
There are times, if you can believe it, when coaches want their players to backcheck less. Todd McLellan, North America’s World Cup boss, told his forwards during exhibition play not to retreat so aggressively in the defensive zone. In their haste to get back, they were going too deep, sometimes below the dots, and having trouble reversing direction and covering the points.
“We saw it the other night with some of our [centers playing wing],” McLellan said. “They’re used to playing low, so they over-backcheck and the top is open. That’s an adjustment for a center playing the wing.”
Like most coaches, McLellan believes it’s easier for a center to switch to wing than vice versa. Regardless, it’s not easy for any player to shift positions, especially if he’s one of the kids of the tournament. At times, North America had six natural centers riding on the wing: Jack Eichel, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Auston Matthews, Nathan MacKinnon, Vincent Trocheck, and J.T. Miller. Team Canada has asked Patrice Bergeron, John Tavares, Logan Couture, Steven Stamkos, Matt Duchene, Tyler Seguin, Joe Thornton, and Claude Giroux to leave their usual slots in the middle.
But all coaches want their centers to backcheck low in the defensive zone to support their defensemen and seal off passes to the points. And as much as wings are taught to collapse more than push out to the blue line, it’s still important to challenge the points and get in defensemen’s shooting lanes or make them pass to areas they dislike.
It sounds easy for loaded federations like North America to pick the best players, who are usually centers, and ask them to play wing. The shift, however, isn’t so simple. It’s hard to break the habit of plunging deep into the defensive zone instead of slamming on the brakes and holding your ground higher near the walls. Even 200-foot prodigies such as Bergeron have to work at it.
Pavelec checked off the list
The Czechs took a simple approach with Ondrej Pavelec. Even before exhibition play in the World Cup started, the Czech bosses informed the veteran he would be the No. 3 goalie behind Michal Neuvirth and Petr Mrazek. Were it that simple in Winnipeg, where there is a similar situation. The 29-year-old Pavelec is the organization’s third-best goalie after Connor Hellebuyck and ex-Bruin Michael Hutchinson. The Jets may have even more faith in Eric Comrie, their second-round pick in 2013, than Pavelec. But Pavelec is under contract for one more season at $3.9 million. Nobody wants to take on a goalie of Pavelec’s pedigree at that price. Even if the Jets assign Pavelec to the AHL, they would have to carry the bulk of his average annual value.
Parayko already doing it all
If Brandon Carlo can someday give the Bruins what Colton Parayko is supplying to the Blues, his employers will be thrilled. Parayko wasn’t considered a top-flight prospect when St. Louis drafted him in the third round in 2012. But after three years of prep at Alaska-Fairbanks and just 17 games of finishing in the AHL, Parayko has exploded into a star defenseman. After sitting out the first exhibition game for Team North America, Parayko entered the lineup for the last two games and will not be sitting anymore. The 6-6, 226-pound Parayko can skate exquisitely for a defenseman of his size. He pounds opponents when necessary, but he’s just as good at using his feet and stick to turn defensive situations into counterattacks. In the offensive zone, Parayko walks the line and hammers the puck. The 23-year-old’s ceiling is so high that he could make Kevin Shattenkirk expendable when the ex-Boston University defenseman is eligible to walk after this season.
No questioning Pavelski’s play
He is a right-shot center. He is from the famed Class of 2003. He is trusted in all situations. Joe Pavelski is just as important to his federation and club team as Patrice Bergeron is to Canada and the Bruins. Pavelski isn’t only America’s No. 1 center. He is its captain, a position that Team USA’s management group and coaching staff did not hesitate to give the Sharks center. “What you have to appreciate about Joe is just the details of his game,” said coach John Tortorella. “Not a flashy guy. But he does everything — offensively, defensively — really well. That’s the definition of a complete player right there, including his character. I think that’s the reason he’s the captain of our team.” Yet for all of Pavelski’s accomplishments, his name was still misspelled on a video display during World Cup media day at Air Canada Centre on Thursday: “Pavelsky.” Ouchsky.
Byfuglien gives Americans options
Dustin Byfuglien prefers playing defense over right wing. Byfuglien, however, ceded personal interests when he accepted Team USA’s call. While Byfuglien’s skating, vision, strength, and puck-pounding prowess may better serve the Jets on the blue line, the Americans needed him as the No. 4 right wing more. That’s because Kyle Palmieri and Brandon Dubinsky, American forwards No. 12 and 13, had not done much to earn Tortorella’s trust. Also, the coaching staff wanted to evaluate their three pairs: Ryan Suter and John Carlson, Ryan McDonagh and Matt Niskanen, and Jack Johnson and Erik Johnson. While the Johnsons chased the puck against the Finns, the Americans’ top two tandems were good. “I liked the pairs,” Tortorella said. “We hadn’t worked with those pairs in the first two games. I think we kind of settled in with looking at those. For the most part, I thought they played well.”
One of the league’s stranger anomalies is the percentage of right-shot long-range bombers. Consider the following: Shea Weber, Byfuglien, Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson, and Parayko, who are all right shots. There are no lefties who bring the heat as hard as their right-shot counterparts. Weird . . . After taking shifts as Connor McDavid’s right-hand man against Team Europe, Jack Eichel moved back to the middle in the exhibition finale against the Czechs, centering Johnny Gaudreau and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Eichel looked more comfortable in his natural position and had more speed as a free-flowing skater in the middle of the ice . . . Teemu Selanne, Saku Koivu, and Kimmo Timonen are serving as advisers to Team Finland. All three still look like they can lace up the skates and fly around the ice . . . Cory Schneider will start the World Cup as the No. 3 goalie on Team USA behind Jonathan Quick and Ben Bishop. In the long run, Schneider has a good chance of being the most successful of the three this season. But in a short tournament with small sample size, the Americans made the right move in tabbing Quick for the net. Quick was excellent in the first exhibition game against Canada. He was just as good against Finland in the exhibition finale. Those performances, plus Quick’s résumé of international brilliance, made the former UMass-Amherst goalie the slam-dunk decision.
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.