David Backes didn’t think the Bruins, scuffling along with one win in their previous seven games, had hit a wall. He preferred to use a different term.
“A wall seems very abrupt and final to me,” Backes said before puck drop of Thursday’s game against the Islanders. “I use something that’s a little more scaleable.”
Like a speedbump, he offered.
He might apply the same metaphor to his career, were he to remove himself from the daily grind and consider the big-picture view of it all. The early part of his 14th NHL season, during which he suited up for 13 of the Bruins’ first 35 games, has rewarded him with one goal and two assists, playing 8:38 a night.
Just another speedbump? Or the wall that arrives at the end of every player’s career?
Regardless, it is the current reality for the 35-year-old winger, who used to chew up 17 to 19 minutes nightly when he was captain of the Blues. He’s learning how to be effective in eight minutes a night.
“That’s the toughest way to play, in my opinion,” said Backes, who suited up for his third game in a row Thursday against the Islanders, tying a season-long streak of action. It was career game No. 942 for Backes. If he is to make it to 1,000 games, he will have found a way to contribute at the fringes of the lineup.
“I gained a lot of respect for guys who have played that role on teams, that I may have taken for granted,” said Backes, who has 245 goals and 309 assists on his résumé. “Guys that have done a really good job, and are still doing it, that are effective.”
The toughest part for Backes, who began Thursday riding the fourth line with left wing Joakim Nordstrom and center Sean Kuraly, and any fourth-liner who doesn’t see special teams time, is staying ready for the next shift. Players typically need a few shifts to get going. They always look forward to the next one. If the last one didn’t go well, they want another chance. If it did go well, they want to keep the fire burning.
When you’re in Backes’s situation, the flame can fizzle. Every night is a series of fits and starts.
“You think it’s coming, and all of a sudden there’s a TV timeout, or a penalty, and you’re back down at the end of the rotation,” he said. “Those are tough moments to keep that spark, that energy, going for the next time you roll over the boards. I have to know that my 40 seconds, I’ll do what I can with it, and we’ll get back to the bench and regroup. Those mental gymnastics have been tough.”
He stretches on the bench. He takes a few laps at TV timeouts. He always keeps up the chatter on the bench. It is why coach Bruce Cassidy retains a measure of trust in Backes, even though his skills as a power forward are diminishing.
“I know his game. He’s been in the league for X amount of years, doing a certain thing, then you lose a bit of it,” Cassidy said. “He hasn’t played a ton of hockey, so if he does stay in there — and that’s all speculative — you hope his game grows a little bit.
“It’s hard to get your motor running when you’re not playing a regular shift. We’ve had this discussion with Brett Ritchie. That’s what we always liked about [currently injured] Karson Kuhlman. He comes up, he sits for long periods, all of a sudden he goes out there, he can still affect the forecheck, his wheels are going. [Zach] Senyshyn did a good job with that. We didn’t know how that would play out.”
Those players, hungry for playing time, represent more speedbumps for Backes, as he tries to keep his wheels moving.
Coyle moves down
Charlie Coyle, of late working as David Krejci’s right wing, was back in his ideal role as a third-line center. Chris Wagner moved up to his right flank. Cassidy continued to express his displeasure with the middle of the lineup’s offensive output.
“They’re good players. They’re going to play well eventually,” Cassidy said. “It would be ideal if [Krejci’s] line would push [Patrice Bergeron’s] line on a regular basis. Internal competition always makes us better.
“We want Charlie to be a third-line center and drive a line, just like we want Krech and [Jake] DeBrusk, no matter who’s on their right wing, to play to their capabilities and be an effective second line, so to speak, or a scoring line. That’s what makes us good. We know what the first line brings pretty much every night. We know the [fourth line, centered by Kuraly], what their job is, and they typically do it well.”
Moore out, Clifton in
John Moore, who fell ill Wednesday, was away from the team Thursday. That paved the way for fellow defenseman Connor Clifton to draw back in. Cassidy said it was about time for Clifton, who hadn’t dressed the last three and suited up once in the previous seven, to see some playing time . . . Charlie McAvoy entered Thursday’s game without a goal since May 27, when he tied Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, and was 0-12—12 in 35 games. The No. 1 blue liner skated an average of 25:37 in the previous four games . . . Brad Marchand, fourth in the scoring race (18-33—51 in 35 games), had seven assists in his previous five games, but zero goals in his last 10. He was two goals shy of becoming the fifth player to put up nine 20-goal seasons with the Bruins. The others: Johnny Bucyk (16 seasons), Rick Middleton (10), Bergeron (10), and Ray Bourque (nine).
Follow Matt Porter on Twitter at @mattyports