By the NHL’s hastened clock, 33-year-old David Backes does not qualify as young. But according to life’s stopwatch, Backes is a spry and highly fit pro athlete who is ideally prepared to face an ailment that usually strikes men of a more advanced age than someone from the famed 2003 draft class.
Perhaps it’s why Backes has shaken off multiple bouts of diverticulitis and colon surgery to play five good games in which the Bruins have gone 4-1-0. Backes has settled in as the No. 3 right wing, posting immediate results alongside Danton Heinen and Riley Nash. The performances have been solid for any player. But for a man who returned less than a month after doctors removed 10 inches from his colon, Backes’s games have been close to extraordinary.
“I think I’m maybe feeling better than I thought I would,” Backes said. “With the major surgery and coming back a little early, I was down a significant amount of weight. Put a little of that back on. But the pace of practice, the ability to get back and play with some predictability with Nash and Danton Heinen, I think it’s been really good. We’ve been positive factors most nights.”
“We need to continue that moving forward.”
Backes had high expectations for 2017-18 after an underwhelming first season in Boston. As a lifelong Blue and captain, Backes had to yank out hardy roots when he pulled his wife and daughter out of St. Louis. He did not expect the upheaval to cut so deep. The player that regularly set the pace was regularly chasing the game, partly because his off-ice distractions disrupted his on-ice play.
It was with a renewed sense of purpose that Backes committed himself to a higher standard than the one he set as a first-year Bruin (17 goals and 21 assists for 38 points, his lowest total since 2007-08). He lost weight and targeted his foot speed for improvement. At home, he knew his family would be better prepared for their second season in Boston.
So for all that to go sideways before the puck even dropped on 2017-18 could have smashed a wrecking ball into the rest of his season.
Backes would have to regain strength following surgery. He would have to reboot the offseason work that set him up for training camp. He would have to merge back into high-speed NHL traffic with a playing style better suited for the league’s grittier and more cumbersome days.
Given his age and game, it could have taken Backes much longer to get back up to speed.
But Backes has not looked out of place since his Nov. 29 return. Since then, the Bruins have also welcomed back Marchand, Anders Bjork, and Jake DeBrusk.
“It’s kind of the way things go,” Backes said. “You’re not going to have a perfect road ahead of you. I think it’s been a story for the team as well. It’s been fits and starts and injuries. Some obstacles early in the year, which can build some resolve and character within the group and an identity that can prove to be very tough to play against. With different bodies rolling back into the lineup, we’ve maintained that identity. We’ve played good hockey and our brand for more minutes than not.”
In one way, the severity of his surgery may have helped Backes with re-entry. He lost approximately 10 pounds after the procedure. He is still five pounds off his preferred weight. Lighter legs may be part of the reason Backes has kept up with the puck instead of chasing it. Heinen is one of the team’s faster skaters. Nash is above average. Their tempos have not been too high for Backes to match.
“I feel like I’m moving around the ice and affecting plays, being an impact player while I’m on the ice,” Backes said. “That seems to be a staple in the process of me being a contributor to wins. That’s kind of my evaluation. The points will come when the points come. But as long as we’re winning games, I’ll keep being an impact.”
Backes has two goals and one assist while averaging 16:11 of ice time per game since his return. He punched through with his first two strikes of the year against Arizona on Dec. 7. One game later, Backes was tagged with a five-minute major for head-butting Andrew Ladd.
The penalty came after Backes ran over Thomas Hickey, which drew Ladd’s attention.
Such ruggedness comes naturally to Backes. The newer stuff, such as going instantly on the attack, does not. Yet Backes’s fit with Heinen and Nash has been so good that the coaches have fed them more shifts than perhaps expected.
They’ve gone up against fearsome threesomes such as Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier, and Jakub Voracek, which has given their top two lines matchup advantages. Coach Bruce Cassidy does not have to burn his first line’s matches in defense-first situations.
“He is sinking his teeth into it. I think he does relish that opportunity,” coach Bruce Cassidy said of Backes’s take-charge approach on the third line. “I think everybody would be happy to play with Bergy and Marsh, but I think he enjoys being a mentor to Danton and, to a certain extent, Nash. He can play his style of game where he feels he has the most success. As long as it meshes with what we want to do, which it does, then we’re all happy.”