The Bruins’ line combinations may be coming into clearer focus
Like the building the Bruins play in, their offense remains a hard-hat construction zone. That’s particularly true when focusing on how their lines will galvanize other than the No. 1 money trio of Patrice Bergeron between Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak that cashed in a bountiful 5-6—11 in Monday’s home opener on Causeway Street.
Last season, it was a reliable and fruitful bottom six — lines three and four — that delivered energy and scoring to a 112-point effort. And though the combos are subject to change (check these pages hourly), the six-pack looked like it was starting to come into focus with the 6-3 win over the Senators.
“Now we’re going to have a day off,” said a smiling David Backes, particularly happy that he played a full game at center, a position that has been his preferred, most-comfortable chair most of his career. “Hopefully, if the line is still together — it’s been three games, three different lines — if that line is together and we get a full day of practice together, and can go into the game building on this.”
None of that was meant as a gripe. Now entering his third season here, Backes has been nothing but eager and accommodating, in part because he has not been an easy fit on the first two lines. To this point, be the coach Claude Julien or Bruce Cassidy, he has been a winger here, has played up and down the lineup, and smiled through it all.
“David, how about you try . . . ?”
And his response?
But it’s hardly a secret that the front office expected more, shall we say, offensive oomph when adding Backes as a free agent in July 2016 for a price tag of five years/$30 million. Then amid all this offseason talk that they would have to solve their riddle at third-line center with Riley Nash gone to Columbus, the focus went to Sean Kuraly moving up and maybe someone (Noel Acciari?) embracing the No. 4 pivot role.
Backes? Ah, leave him out on the wing. He’ll be fine there. He’ll find a line, because, well, that’s what he’s always done here and it looks like what he’ll always do.
Well, maybe not. Maybe, like Monday, he can go back to being a key man who understands and executes the complexities of being in the middle, and something can take shape around him with young, eager wings such as Danton Heinen and Anders Bjork.
Maybe maestros, even older ones like the 34-year-old Backes, are best left maestros, where they dictate the pace and orchestrate scores.
Again, one game, so let’s not get carried away.
“We started to create our forecheck,” said Backes, reflecting on the afternoon’s work, one that improved as time wore off the clock. “We want to be a line that can change momentum of a game.
“It used to be [in that role], make a big hit or start a fight, but now if you can take a D-zone draw and turn it into an O-zone draw, be under siege and get it into the offensive zone, get a good change and leave the next line with something good . . . those are momentum-changing shifts throughout the game.”
The fourth line, with Kuraly slipping back into his comfy chair in the middle there, looked even better. Chris Wagner, his left winger, scored his first goal for the Bruins, bumping the lead to 3-1 in the second.
“Felt surreal,” said Wagner. “I’m not even sure how it went in the net.”
Answer: As he was cross-checked to the ice, Wagner put a tip to a Charlie McAvoy shot. A classic fourth-line strike reminiscent of last season when the Tim Schaller-Kuraly-Acciari Trench Connection Line posted an impressive 28 goals.
Which raises the question: Might the newfound Wagner-Kuraly-Acciari line be able to produce like the Trench Connection?
“We can always ask — doesn’t mean we’ll get it,” said Cassidy, who would like nothing better. “Noel had 10 goals, right? He doesn’t want to go backwards. Sean had six and some in the playoffs, so he certainly wants double digits. Wags had seven [total with Ducks and Islanders].
“They all believe they probably can be 10-goal scorers. If you can get that out of your fourth line, with responsibility and grit, then we’ll be in good shape.”
Of greater concern Monday was the No. 2 line, with David Krejci slotted between Jake DeBrusk and Ryan Donato. They posted the dreaded 0-0—0 over their combined 42:03 of ice time. Worse, they all finished minus-2 on a day the Bruins won by three goals. Krejci, whose $7.25 million is the highest cap hit on the club, has but a lone assist in three games.
Now the Bruins are on to Edmonton, the Oilers next to visit the Garden Thursday. Cassidy, with Joakim Nordstrom as his 13th forward Monday, sounded like he would come back with the same lines. At least when he left the building. If he shakes up anything, it could be the long-considered option of shifting Pastrnak to Krejci’s line.
And then what to do with that open right wing spot? One possibility, said Cassidy, would be to try Backes up there.
“I kind of like Backes in the middle,” said Cassidy. “I think Bjork had his legs under him tonight. Anders just has to learn when to handle the puck — when to make plays, when to hang on. It’s for him to figure out, ‘OK, if I do give it up, it’s tough to get it back.’ We’d like him to possess more.
“Danton’s game is coming and he’s very responsible. So I thought that line worked out well. And it will be the plan going forward — unless something changes.”
That change has been constant for Backes. Perhaps the change to standing pat would be best of all.