Seeing David Backes in Boston gold and black tonight will be a strange sight for Blues fans. A franchise fixture for eleven seasons, the Blues former captain was part and parcel of the team’s identity as a blue collar, rough around the edges, hard checking team. His netfront presence and ability to get under opponents skin was notable, but it’s his numbers while wearing the Note that are impressive:
- Fifth in Blues history in games played (727)
- Sixth in goals (206)
- Sixth in points (460)
- Eighth in assists (254)
- Fifth in penalty minutes (969)
His leaving in free agency this summer was mostly expected - the Bruins offered him a five year, $30 million contract that leaves him well paid through age 37. The Blues were unwilling, especially with their tenuous cap situation, to commit that much term and money to a player who would be in the twilight of their years. It’s hard to deal a 37 year old who’s making that much, and when one factors in Backes’ style of play and his gradual production drop-off over the last couple of seasons, it’s fair to assume that the Blues viewed him as a current asset and a potential future liability to their pocketbooks.
It’s tough for fans to see a captain leave, especially one who was a fixture on the team for eleven seasons. It’s difficult for the team, as well, since the loss of Backes necessitated a shake-up in team leadership and the passing of the torch to Alex Pietrangelo. The assessment of the value of a player is, as we all know, more than the on-ice numbers. Are the Blues missing the strong voice of Backes in the locker room? Could his presence’ve snapped them out of their funk earlier? It’s difficult to say - no one’s in the locker room but the team, and there are multiple factors that could be going in to the Blues’ rough start to the season outside of who has a letter on their chest. They went through lulls in play last season too - was it Backes who snapped them out of it, or was it the return of key cogs like Jaden Schwartz to the lineup?
Backes’ numbers this season through thirteen games have been all right - three goals, four assists, and a team-leading 19 PIM. Considering that he plays on a team with Brad Marchand, leading the Bruins in PIM is impressive.
Considering that one of the major things contributing to the Blues’ weak stretch in play as of late were penalty minutes taken, maybe that wouldn’t be much of an asset on the Blues right now. The Blues have the second best penalty kill percentage in the league, but they’ve taken an absolute ton of penalties. When you’re on the PK, that limits scoring chances. When you don’t have scoring chances, you have a stretch of games like the Blues had before their three game win streak.
Is the team having issues adjusting to a newer, faster, less gritty style? Possibly. There are still quite a few kinks to work out between the team and the new coaching staff. This shift in play is a necessity without the big bodies of Backes and Troy Brouwer. It’s too early to say if it’s a strategy that won’t pay off - the adjustment period, if these last three games is any indication, may be ending. It’s a new style of play, not an inherently worse one, or an improvement. The loss of Backes necessitated it, but it doesn’t indicate much yet.
Losing one player shouldn’t damage a franchise, especially if it’s a gritty two-way forward. The team didn’t lose its identity, it’s developing a new one. Backes was beloved here and his time with the Blues should be respected, but a month and a half into the season, I don’t think that it’s fair to say that the Blues necessarily miss him. Not enough time has passed and too many factors can come into play regarding the team’s record so far this season. We should probably ask this question again the next time the Blues and Bruins play each other the next time on January 10th.