Morning Free Association, September 1
The Center Cannot Hold

Is David Backes really going to center the third line this season?

On Tuesday, Bruins CEO Charlie Jacobs joined the Jimmy Fund Radio telethon. While talking with WEEI folks, he began to crow about the Bruins’ depth of center: “We’ve got Bergeron, [David] Krejci and Backes as our first three centers. Think about that […] I don’t know if there’s a team in the Eastern Conference that is [as] three-deep at center.”

This goes somewhat contrary to conventional wisdom concerning the Bruins’ lineup.

Projected Bruins Forward Lines (“Conventional Wisdom”, August 2016)
Brad Marchand — Patrice Bergeron — David Backes
Matt Beleskey — David Krejci — David Pastrnak
Frank Vatrano — Ryan Spooner — Jimmy Hayes
Noel Acciari — Dominic Moore — Riley Nash
(Tyler Randell)

Most expectations were that Backes – who is a natural center but has also played on the right wing – would play a role on the top-6, as a wing to to either Krejci or Bergeron.

The most obvious interpretation of this quote would be to suggest that Backes would be the full-time center of the 3rd line, displacing Ryan Spooner. This begs the question of ‘what happens with Spooner?’. Typically when an NHL roster has an extra centerman, the odd-man-out is asked to play on the wing. The most obvious reinterpretation would essentially swap the two players.

Projected Bruins Forward Lines (“Updated Projection”, September 2016)
Brad Marchand — Patrice Bergeron — Ryan Spooner
Matt Beleskey — David Krejci — David Pastrnak
Frank Vatrano — David Backes — Jimmy Hayes
Noel Acciari — Dominic Moore — Riley Nash
(Tyler Randell)

Spooner has played on the wing in the past, but did not excel in that role. Also, he was used as a left wing, since he is a left-handed shooter. Backes is a right-handed stick, who plays the right side when he plays wing. Ostensibly, this is a poor role for Spooner, even though right wing positions would be open, with only David Pastrnak and Jimmy Hayes in place. On the left side, he would be in competition with more established lefties Brad Marchand & Matt Beleskey, and the up & coming Frank Vatrano.

DJ Bean discusses the matter here. Bean suggests that a possible plan would be to have Spooner & Backes working together on the 3rd line, swapping between center and wing depending on which zone the play is in. On the surface, this might make sense – the two players have skill sets which seem very complimentary. Backes has been known to throw a hit on occasion, while Spooner will usually shy away from contact. Backes is defensively sound, while Spooner still struggles in the defensive zone. For his part, Spooner has the speed to move the puck in transition – speed that Backes lacks, and Spooner generates more scoring opportunities than Backes does. However, even in this scenario, the RW/LW issue remains open. It would be difficult to manage a line where a player swaps between left wing in one zone and center in another, if their line mate swaps between right wing and center. You cannot accomodate both – someone somewhere would be forced to play radically out of position, on his off-hand.

This leaves open a third option. Would the Bruins try to trade Spooner? Spooner is a fairly talented player with decent upside potential Given the availability of Moore, Acciari, and possibly Vatrano as bottom six centers, in addition to Backes, would the Bruins be looking to trade Spooner as part of a package for short-term help in the form of a defenseman? And would Spooner be a big enough piece to attract such a trade? It seems like a stretch.

Of course, maybe this is all nonsense and Jacobs was speaking generally without putting a lot of thought into it or getting input from Don Sweeney & Claude Julien – but one would assume that Jacobs is in the loop about how the team plans to use a player they just signed for a large contract.

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