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Bruins add to strength with David Backes signing

Veteran joins Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci at center with five-year, $30 million contract

by Amalie Benjamin @AmalieBenjamin / NHL.com Staff Writer

When the news broke that David Backes was headed to the Boston Bruins, the first report got it wrong. The tweet said that Backes would be signing with Boston on a seemingly mind-blowing one-year contract. It seemed that Bruins general manager Don Sweeney had pulled off a minor miracle.

The truth was, as it tends to be, more controversial.

Boston had actually signed Backes to a five-year, $30 million contract, term and money that put him out of the question for his former team, the St. Louis Blues. Because although Blues general manager Doug Armstrong acknowledged on NHL Network that Backes would be "sorely missed" in terms of his physical play and leadership, he also said that he was nervous about the later seasons for a 32-year-old player on a long-term contract.

And that is where Backes' new contract could get tricky.

Though, as Backes said on Friday, "I'm 32, not 52. I think there's plenty of legs and plenty of physicality and energy left in me, and the term's been something that maybe a few people have questioned, but for me I expect to still be at the top of my game for that last year."

For now, though, Boston is focused on this season, on the near future, on the potential at its fingertips. With the swipe of a pen, a signature on a fresh contract, the Bruins are now even more stacked at center than they were before, with the position already an area of strength.

Through the 2020-2021 season, the Bruins have three right-handed centers locked up: Patrice Bergeron (who has a year beyond that), David Krejci and Backes. They have a wealth of talent, even if all of that talent is already past its 30th birthday.

The question is how they will utilize it.

It was a question that Backes himself asked the Bruins as he went through the process, as he tried to envision how he would fit into a team that seemed set at his spot.

"We talked mostly about me being a [center], and through the process I was asking questions and didn't want to pull myself out of being part of the Bruins," Backes said. "But you've got Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci who are top-tier [centers] and they're both right-handed - you're going to bring me in as another right-handed [center]?"

He wanted to know how, exactly, this was going to work. His skepticism was understandable.

The sides also discussed his play on the wing at the end of the season in St. Louis, the success he was able to have at the position, his openness to playing there in the future, perhaps, as Backes mentioned multiple times, on the right side with Bergeron and Brad Marchand.

"Most players would look at it and say, 'Well, you've got Bergeron and Krejci, where am I playing?'" Sweeney said. "David looked at it and said, 'Boy, I get to play with Bergeron and Krejci, whether I'm playing behind them or with them on the wings. He acknowledges like, 'Man, we're a really deep team.'"

There have been no decisions from the Bruins as to where they will fit Backes into their lineup, though the ability to stretch out the lineup -- to be a team with three dangerous lines, to have more than one player able to take crucial penalty-kill faceoffs, to not rely so heavily on the top two -- is appealing. It is, as Sweeney said, a domino effect.

And it might well change over the course of the five years that he could be in town. For now, though, it seems as if there is a challenge in the signing, in pushing Boston's younger players, specifically Ryan Spooner.

Can Spooner seize hold of that third-line center spot? Can he push Backes to the wing? Or are the Bruins better off keeping Backes in line behind Bergeron and Krejci and putting Spooner in a role with less heavy defensive lifting?

Video: SJS@STL, Gm1: Backes opens the scoring late in 1st

"We're going to let it play out," Sweeney said. "The strength up the middle of the ice -- Ryan Spooner, it will be a great challenge for him if he wants to occupy that spot or play next to one of these centers. The guys that emerge as being able to handle the minutes in the situations are the ones that are going to play.

"We're now in a situation where if we want to go with four deep, which is what we've generally had when we've had success, where's the matchup come from the other side? Other teams may find it difficult to play against the top centers that we have.

"So we're going to let it play out. We do have a blueprint as to how we want to look at it, but again, it's going to be up to some of our younger players. They're going to be given the opportunity to be put in those roles, and it's up to them to seize it."

They have that ability because they have the versatility of Backes, rather than having re-signed Loui Eriksson. Eriksson, a wing who is a year younger than Backes, went to the Vancouver Canucks for the same average annual value and one additional year.

As Backes said, "I'm into winning games, so if [coach Claude Julien] thinks that we're going to win more games with me playing wing, then I'm in. if he thinks that we're going to win more games with me playing center, I'm in. Whatever he thinks, I'll do it to the best of my ability."

For now, Backes is adjusting to his new normal, his new home, his new life. He acknowledged that he had been a bit spoiled by his time in St. Louis, by 10 years in the same city, by his connection with and to the place where he was drafted. That doesn't happen often. It made him lucky.

Backes was emotional after the Blues were eliminated by the San Jose Sharks in Game 6 of the Western Conference Final, when so much was unknown and the future was cloudy. He admitted Friday that his wife got emotional Thursday, on the eve of free agency, when it became clear that St. Louis would no longer be their home.

But he also said that he had gotten goose bumps when he talked to the Bruins in the days leading up to Friday, with the thought of a new place and a new sweater at the top of his mind. He started to think of the possibilities. The Bruins had wanted him, the full package, as Sweeney put it, of leadership and ability and hunger to win.

The Bruins also want to win. They believe that Backes will help them get there. They have up to five years -- through that 2020-2021 season -- to see if they're right.

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