David Backes's sudden shift to enforcer is a troubling development

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After Micheal Ferland sent Marcus Johansson to the hospital with an indisputably clean, yet destructive hit in Tuesday’s matchup between the Carolina Hurricanes and Boston Bruins, something inside David Backes told him to answer for his teammate.

Instinctual, or perhaps maybe now his mandate, Backes made eyes with Ferland before the puck dropped on the hard-nosed winger’s next shift. And in a tacit agreement of sorts, they shook off the gloves and exchanged right hands (which thankfully lacked problematic precision) until Backes was eventually muscled to the ice.

David Backes and Micheal Ferland let the fists fly. (Getty)
David Backes and Micheal Ferland let the fists fly. (Getty)
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Similar situations played out two and three game nights prior to Boston’s emotional win over the Hurricanes as well with Backes fighting Adam Erne of the Tampa Bay Lightning and of one the last remaining heavyweights, San Jose’s Micheal Haley, last week.

Bouts with Erne and Haley marked the first time in his career that Backes had fought in consecutive nights. Now he has three in his last four outings for a red-hot Bruins team that has 11 wins from their last 12 games and has recorded at least a point in 17 consecutive outings.

With a trend developed now, Backes’s sudden shift to old-school enforcer was a topic of conversation following the Bruins’ victory over Carolina. According to Kevin Paul Dupont of the Boston Globe, Backes explained that after a meeting with Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy, he’s chosen to adopt this new role as a means to preserve his spot on the roster and continue being a “vital contributor.”

Troublingly, Backes dismissed any concern over his concussion history as a follow-up question in the discussion over his new throwback role. There’s been three documented head injuries since his move to Boston in 2016 alone.

So it appears Backes will keep picking fights until his chin is compromised again. And the Bruins, if not throwing him into harm’s way themselves, at least seem cool with it.

He’s doing his job, it would appear, as long as there’s accountability out there.

“I think it’s clean,” Backes said of the Ferland hit on Johansson, according to Sara Civian of The Athletic. “I think it’s hard and clean. It’s shoulder-chest, and you know, if guys are going to be running at our skilled guys then we have to keep them accountable. Give credit to him — he obliges and we go at it and you know, I think it was a decent fight.

“But the hit I think is clean and hard, one of our good skilled players gets hurt and I felt it was pretty aggressive and we needed to have an answer for it.”

How Backes’s role has devolved from top-line producer to policeman since his days in St. Louis is directly tied to production, of course.

With five goals in 14 points in 54 games, Backes is no longer the 30-goal and 60-point power forward that he used to be, and needs to uncover other avenues to truly contribute on a contract that will pay him another $12 million across two seasons after this one.

Unfortunately the one he’s volunteered for poses a significant risk to his long-term health.

It would be easier to understand Backes’s logic if it was his livelihood he was fighting for — not risking. But with contracts of $30 million, $22.5 million and $7.5 million signed in his career, and nothing but guaranteed money remaining on his current deal, Backes has nothing to gain from inviting punches in his direction.

Only a spot in the lineup to preserve.

They say no concussion is the same, but that doesn’t mean history should be ignored — be it Backes’s, or players that have had similar propensities to head issues.

Kyle Okposo was admitted into ICU to treat a concussion before returning to the Sabres lineup before the start of last season. Having suffered another concussion last March, he was dropped by the first closed fist thrown in his direction over a three-and-a-half year fighting hiatus after stepping in to challenge Tony DeAngelo of the New York Rangers last month.

He needed to be propped up to stand before exiting the ice, and was immediately flown home for evaluation. He’s since returned to the lineup.

Like Backes, Okposo has maxed out his career earning potential on the $42-million deal that he, also like Backes, is failing to meet expectations on. And with his concussion history, Okposo has every reason to avoid taking punches in a game that presents enough hazards as it is. For a while, he did just that.

While not the case with Okposo, coaxing a player into fighting in order to remain productive or simply stay in the lineup is archaic thinking that belies the fact that it’s something naturally being phased out of the sport, anyway.

And doing so with a player with a lengthy concussion history is flat-out irresponsible.

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