His head clear, his weight down, David Backes is eager for training camp to open in a couple of weeks, with his eye set on increasing his playing time and expanding his profile in the Bruins’ offense.
Losing 10 pounds has a way of liberating even a 12-year NHL veteran, one with 858 career games under his now-tightened belt.
“It’s a little different feel, and it takes some getting used to,” said Backes, who has slimmed down to roughly 210 pounds, a playing weight he hasn’t maintained since turning pro out of college in 2005.
“I’m a little leaner because the game is faster and I am trying to keep up with a lot of kids. Now it’s get on the ice, keep up, and be productive and be a good member of our team.”
We won’t begin to see how the scale of performance reads until Backes and the rest of the Boston varsity get back on the ice soon after Labor Day. He says he feels quicker, more nimble, but Backes also knows that three-on-three and four-on-four hockey — his active summer schedule back home in Minnesota — can’t provide a true read of his game or readiness to return.
Backes went on vacation a few minutes earlier than most of his Black-and-Gold brethren, served a concussion by the oncoming freight train that was J.T. Miller in Game 5 of the Boston-Tampa Bay playoff series. Propped up by teammates Jake DeBrusk and Kevan Miller, a rubber-legged Backes made his way to the dressing room in Tampa, rocked by a shoulder-to-chin hit that came just after Backes, caught with his head down just inside the offensive blue line, shuttled the puck between Miller’s legs.
“I don’t know what the perception of that becomes,” said Backes, wishing that Miller’s point of contact had been lower, be it to his chest or body core, “but if anyone in the world gets hit hard enough on the chin, you’re going to not feel good for a little bit. That was certainly how I ended up after the hit.”
It was hardly Backes’s first visit to Palookaville. It was at least his second concussion since signing with the Bruins as a free agent in the summer of 2016, and by his imprecise count, the former Blues captain has suffered at least a handful over a career, both pro and amateur, that has spanned more than a quarter-century.
The concussion, in part, led Backes to take an extra week or so off at the start of the summer. Two bouts of diverticulitis, and subsequent colorectal surgery, also took their toll during the season, along with a nasty gash to his thigh during a March 17 game in Tampa that robbed him of his momentum headed into the playoffs.
“The mental exercise that it takes to push through and keep going . . . I thought an extra week would help me come back strong, come back hungry,” said Backes, reached by phone at his offseason home. “It was a season of complete randomness. Chances are those lightning bolts don’t strike again, and that makes me extremely optimistic for the year.”
Now what awaits is the fit for Backes going forward. In his first season in Boston, most of it with Claude Julien as coach, the big-bodied center/wing transitioned from full-time pivot duty in St. Louis to a right wing role on an assortment of lines in Boston. Last season, with coach Bruce Cassidy in charge from the start, Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci remained in their roles as centers No. 1 and 2, and Backes spent most of his time again on third-line right wing, often with Danton Heinen (LW) and Riley Nash (C) his running mates.
Nash has since departed to Columbus, signed by the Blue Jackets as a free agent, and it remains to be seen what Cassidy concocts as his No. 3 line.
Conventional wisdom would have Backes and Heinen paired around perhaps Sean Kuraly or Noel Acciari, but August’s conventional wisdom has a way of disappearing from a coach’s September whiteboard. Backes embraced the No. 3 line role last year, and said he would again if asked, but again, the leaner version of himself has him thinking of perhaps hitting higher in the order. Perhaps as right wing with Bergeron or Krejci.
“Not that my style is going to change a ton,” he said, “but if I am able to get to spots quicker . . .
“I’ve played with a 220-pound frame for 8-10 years in the league, and now it’s going to be a little lighter and a little leaner.
“It’s my attempt to adapt to what changes have gone on in the league. It might just swing back the other way and be a heavier, harder league. But it’s certainly more skillful and quick, and that’s just the realization I had to make.”
Between even-strength and power-play duty, Backes logged 15:24 average ice time last season, seventh among Boston forwards. Brad Marchand topped the chart up front with 19:43. If lighter means more productive, as he hopes, Backes thinks he could add a couple of minutes, a playing load that was more his custom in St. Louis, which is more in keeping with what the Bruins felt they were acquiring when they promised him $30 million over five years.
A diet overhaul contributed to some of the weight loss. Partly because of his unpleasant diverticulitis bouts, said Backes, he has eliminated red meat from his menu and also eats very little chicken and pork. Most of his diet now is fish- and plant-based.
As for keeping his brain from being addled again, there’s no diet that serves as prophylactic to that. He’s feeling ready to engage again in the game he loves, fully aware that science has attached a caveat emptor to those who continue playing after multiple concussions. The docs tell him he’s good to go, and he’s going.
“As time’s gone by, the symptoms have disappeared and not come back with whatever exercise I’ve done, so I am feeling well going into the season,” he said. “The unknown of long-term effects of concussions is, I mean, it certainly is not lost in analyzing my well-being and how I’m feeling.
“But you take the information from the guys that are doing the research, and the neuroscience people who are out there, and you have to make your best call based on that.
“This is an awesome game and it’s been great for our family, but at what cost long-term, when you have a couple of kids you want to see grow up and see them getting married and live long lives?
“You want to be there for as long as naturally possible. You don’t want too many repetitive hits to the head to influence that. It’s all been discussed and I think we’d be remiss if we didn’t do our due diligence — but I think we are a full go for camp and excited to get back on the ice.”
Does Chara have Howe in his sights?
No argument here with Bruce Cassidy, who told WEEI last week that he wouldn’t put it past Bruins captain Zdeno Chara to play “four or five more years.”
Chara, who will be 42 years old in March, still performs offseason workouts that would turn chiseled twentysomethings into chipped pucks. A short clip of Big Z weightlifting and leaping hurdles popped up on social media last week and I was transfixed. It took two days for my knees to recover.
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I really enjoy working hard in the gym where you are not afraid to sweat or bleed ,where pains become part of who you are ,where you consistently have to earn it everyday, hungry to be better. No shortcuts ! No excuses! No BS ! #dukla#hardwork#grind#grit#sweat#funtimes ————————————————————— Rád si užívam tvrdý tréning v gym kde sa nemusíš báť sa spotiť ba niekedy aj do krvi ,kde sa bolesť stane súčasťou toho kým si,kde si to sústavne dokazuješ každý deň ,byt lepším. Žiadne ukrátenia! Žiadne výhovorky! Žiadne klamstvá ! #dukla#tvrdápraca#drina#zabava
Hard not to think Chara has something in mind, and I believe that something is the number 1,768. That’s games played. If he gets there, the Trencin Tower of Power will own the NHL record for career games.
The math: Chara will enter the season ranked No. 33 all time with 1,423 regular-season games on his curriculum vitae (this is ignoring his 159 playoff games, nearly equal to an additional two regular seasons).
Gordie Howe, who was 52 when he played his final NHL game with the Whalers, holds down the No. 1 spot with 1,767 games. Which leaves Chara with 10 years to chase Mr. Hockey’s standard. Mark Messier is No. 2 at 1,756. He called it quits in the spring of ’04 at age 43.
If Chara were to play the full 82 games for each of the next five seasons, he would stand at 1,833. He could miss up to 10 games each season (he’s averaged but six absences over the last three seasons) and still eclipse Howe’s mark.
The new season will begin with three other active NHLers ahead of Chara on the career games list: No. 11, Patrick Marleau (1,575); No. 21, Joe Thornton (1,493); and No. 27 Matt Cullen (1,445). All three have contracts in place for 2018-19. Cullen, the oldest, will be 42 in March. Marleau, the youngest, will be 39 next month. Jumbo Joe turned 39 July 2. Conceivably, all four could break Howe’s mark. But none has a chance of outworking Chara.
“I said it the day he got here, and I’ll say it forever,” noted Chara’s agent, Matt Keator. “Big Z is a machine.”
Howe, by the way, retired for two seasons before returning, at age 45, to sandwich in 419 WHA games before his NHL last hurrah with the Whale. His combined mark stands at 2,186.
Chara will have to play 764 more games — just over nine more seasons — to break that record. After all, a man needs a challenge.
OLD KING HENRIK
Rangers sticking with Lundqvist
The Rangers underwent a bold, transparent roster restructuring in the spring with general manager Jeff Gorton, ex- of Causeway Street, openly stating it was time to cashier a number of pricy core vets and start anew. The success of the newbie Golden Knights no doubt influenced the decision.
It was that purge that ultimately had Rick Nash arriving in Boston for a short visit and now has Ryan Spooner (six NHL seasons, 158 points) inked in for the next two seasons on Broadway for — wait for it — $4 million per season.
But for all their Wicked Big Makeover, the Blueshirts will enter 2018-19 with 36-year-old King Henrik Lundqvist as their No. 1 goalie. Unless Gorton has other plans, Henrik will be backed by 6-foot-4-inch Czech Marek Mazanec, a 27-year-old former Nashville draft pick who has all of 31 NHL games on his résumé.
So for all their vibrant youth — including some draft picks who are, yes, half Lundqvist’s age — the Blueshirts are putting a lot of eggs in one nylon-twined basket with their veteran Swedish stopper. New coach David Quinn zipped over to Gothenburg for a meet-and-greet with Lundqvist and returned with praise that he remains “one of the best in the business.”
Lundqvist also has three years remaining on his contract with a $8.5 million cap hit.
Still, one has to wonder how a 36-year-old goalie will manage his 24-square-foot assignment behind, shall we say, a spotty defensive corps that has ex-Boston University standout Kevin Shattenkirk as its top money-earner and defensive anchor.
Ex-Bruins draftee Rob O’Gara, shipped off for Nick Holden at the deadline, also will be in the mix. The King could have some trouble protecting his castle.
Age alone, though, shouldn’t mean that Lundqvist, about to enter his 14th Ranger season, will be challenged. Keep in mind, Tim Thomas entered the 2010-11 season as a 36-year-old and came out of it, at age 37, with his name etched on the Stanley Cup that spring with the Bruins. Not to mention a Conn Smythe Trophy and his second Vezina.
Just a sample of how some of the better modern goalies performed beyond their 36th birthday:
Martin Brodeur: 7 seasons, 153 wins.
Dominik Hasek: 5 seasons, 142 wins.
Ed Belfour: 5 seasons, 141 wins
Thomas: 4 seasons, 88 wins
Roberto Luongo: 3 seasons, 70 wins.
Patrick Roy: 2 seasons, 67 wins.
Of that group, only Luongo, 39, remains active. He is under contract with the Panthers for four more seasons at $5.33 million per.
Krug’s uncle is now a Monster
Carey Krug, uncle of Bruins defenseman Torey Krug, was hired by the Blue Jackets this past week to be an assistant coach with their AHL Cleveland Monsters. “Great guy,” noted Bill Zito, Cleveland’s assistant GM. “He’s been working at Manny Legace’s hockey academy and does a lot of skill work, so we figured it’s a good fit for the AHL guys.”
A week from Tuesday, hours after the Dell Technologies golf tournament wraps up in Norton, the Bruins will tee off at the International in Bolton for their first official team function of 2018-19. By Thursday night, the rookies, including the likes of Jack Studnicka and Urho Vaakanainen, will land in Buffalo for the start of the four-team prospects camp.
Return to Texas
Colton Hargrove, of the Rockwell, Texas, Hargroves, hooked on this past week with the AHL Texas Stars (Calder Cup finalists vs. Toronto last spring). Hargrove, a 6-2 left winger, played the last three seasons with the Providence Bruins after three years at Western Michigan. He was Boston’s final pick, No. 205, in the 2012 draft.
The NHL Network’s recent listing of today’s Top 20 NHL Defensemen did not include Zdeno Chara. To which I say, Okey Dokey Gary Doakie. Then again, I remember a recent poll for an all-time Red Sox roster than did not include Denton True “Cy” Young on its pitching staff . . . The Bruins have yet to announce whether any veterans will be offered tryouts in camp, although one or two could help fill out the roster here while the varsity travels to China. Keep in mind, exhibition games here (Sept. 16) and in D.C. (Sept. 18) vs. the Capitals will require able bodies. The Bruins last September gave Teddy Purcell a look, but ultimately opted not to sign the veteran right winger. Purcell, 32, signed on late with the KHL’s Omsk Avangard and tied for second (1-4—5) in its playoff scoring . . . Count David Backes among the Bruins intrigued to be shipping off early next month for a two-city tour (Shenzhen and Beijing) in China for a pair of exhibition games against the Flames. “I know some guys are less excited about it,” he said, “but you can put me on the chart as being excited about it.” Culture, food, and history top the list for Backes’s interests on the trip. “The other side of the world,” he noted. “I’m looking forward to experiencing how they do life, what they have around, and just being immersed in their culture. I don’t think there’s a better way than a guided trip that has been vetted and put together by a top-notch organization and then do it with 20 or so of your best friends.” A good trip for a guy who reengineered his diet around fish and plants. “Yeah, I think they provide all of that over there,” he added, “so I’m in.”