According to multiple reports, Boston Bruins center David Backes will return to the lineup tonight, less than a month after having surgery to remove part of his intestines.
Backes was diagnosed with diverticulitis, which is described as an infection in part of the digestive tract. He has battled this ailment twice now this season, as he missed the first five games of the season with the same issue.
When you look at the numbers, Backes has played in just five games in the 2017-18 season. That total was by far the lowest for any of the Bruins’ regulars. When you look at the diagnosis and the time he missed, however, there’s a lot more than meets the eye.
Backes Before the Surgery
Backes began the season on the shelf. He missed the first five games of the season during his first bout with diverticulitis, a stretch in which the Bruins went 2-3-0. It became apparent early on that the team missed Backes’ physical presence and leadership.
The Colorado Avalanche swept the Bruins in a home-and-home series, outscoring them 10-3 in the process. The team was asking younger players like Ryan Spooner and Tim Schaller to play bigger minutes in high-pressure situations. The more that they struggled to adapt, the more the team struggled as a whole.
On Oct. 17, it was announced that Backes was nearing his return to the Bruins lineup. Two days later, on October 19, he made his season debut against the Vancouver Canucks. He played 24 shifts, a total of 18:13, and was a -1.
Backes would go on to play four additional games for the Bruins, averaging 17:35 time on ice, and adding an assist. A highlight of this stretch came in Columbus on Oct. 30, when Backes played 19:18.
All of the progress came to a screeching halt when, on Nov. 1, the Bruins announced that the diverticulitis had returned. Fearing that it leaving it alone would be detrimental to his health, Backes underwent surgery to remove the part of his colon that was having the issue.
The timetable for return? Eight weeks.
After the Surgery
He missed 12 games while recovering from the surgery, a span in which the Bruins went 6-5-1. This time around, it was a slew of injuries that slowed the team down. Brad Marchand, David Krejci, Ryan Spooner and Anders Bjork all missed time over that span. This further weakened an already thin Bruins’ forward group.
Think about that number for a second, though — 12 games, stretched over 28 days. When the initial announcement came out, it was expected that Backes would miss up to eight weeks recovering from the surgery. Even if the recovery didn’t last a full eight weeks, the Society of American Gastrointestinal and Endoscopic Surgeons’ website says that a typical recovery takes six weeks, not factoring in any professional sports.
If the recovery had lasted the full eight weeks, Backes’ target return date would have likely been Dec. 21 against the Jets. That’s an additional 10 games that he would miss, and with the Bruins on the outside of the playoff picture, the sooner he could return, the better.
With David Krejci out with an injury, the Bruins have slotted Backes in as the second line center for tonight’s game against the Tampa Bay Lightning. He’ll skate with Danton Heinen and Riley Nash, and play the right wing on the second power play unit.
The Bruins lineup, however, is a shell of its true self heading into tonight’s game. Just as Backes and Brad Marchand check back into the lineup, Krejci and Jake DeBrusk hit the shelf. Krejci re-injured his back in Sunday’s game against the Edmonton Oilers. DeBrusk, meanwhile, is also out with an upper body injury. Head coach Bruce Cassidy said that DeBrusk is day-to-day.
Anders Bjork and Adam McQuaid both skated today, as reported by the Boston Herald. Bjork joined the team for their optional skate this morning, while McQuaid skated on his own.
Where Does Backes Fit In
So, when Krejci, DeBrusk and Bjork return to the Bruins lineup, where does Backes slot in?
One would expect David Krejci to return to his normal position as the second line center, behind Patrice Bergeron. Jake DeBrusk, who had found great chemistry with Krejci, will also slot in on the second line.
Backes could easily find a home on the right wing of that line. His physical game compliments the playmaking styles of Krejci and DeBrusk well. What’s more, their abilities to move the puck and find open players could help revitalize Backes’ scoring touch.
If that doesn’t work, the team could also put him at his natural position of center. On the third line, Backes provides a veteran presence alongside such players as Ryan Spooner, Danton Heinen or Frank Vatrano.
The jury is still out on where Backes fits in, but one thing is clear. The Bruins are glad to have him back in the fold Thursday when the Bruins host the Lightning.
Dan Bahl is a writer for The Hockey Writers, covering the Boston Bruins. Dan is a recent graduate of Quinnipiac University, and currently serves as the Lead Analyst of Quinnipiac Women’s Hockey on ESPN+. Dan has worked as the Head of Media Relations for the Valley Blue Sox, as well as a Media Relations Associate for the Hartford Yard Goats.