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What is Backes’ strength? How his defensive play can help Ducks youth

With Boston, Backes’ role became redundant, but can he revive it in Anaheim?

ANAHEIM, CA - MARCH 1: David Backes #21 of the Anaheim Ducks skates during the game against the New Jersey Devils at Honda Center on March 1, 2020 in Anaheim, California. Photo by Debora Robinson/NHLI via Getty Images

On January 17, 2020, the Boston Bruins waived David Backes. It was an unceremonious end to a relatively disappointing four-year tenure with Boston. After signing a five-year, $30 million contract ahead of the 2016-17 season, the former St. Louis Blues captain could never produce to the level which many had become accustom. Backes played that old-school, grinding and edgy style of game that was once effective in the late 2000s and early 2010s, but suffered during the league-wide transition to speed and puck-moving skill around the time he signed his last contract.

Upon being waived and subsequently sent to the AHL Bruins in Providence, Backes and the Bruins’ front office came to a mutual understanding that he would not report to the team affiliate while General Manager Don Sweeney worked out a deal to move the 35-year-old center. That deal came to fruition on February 21, when Backes was dealt to Anaheim in addition to the Bruins’ first-round pick at the 2020 NHL Entry Draft and defensive prospect Axel Andersson in exchange for Ondrej Kase. As part of the trade, Boston retained 25 percent of Backes’ $6 million contract, bringing the cap hit down to $4 million for this year and next for Anaheim.

As far as traditional numbers go, Backes finished his career in Boston with just 94 points in 217 games, making for a points per 60 rate of 1.76 — a significant drop from his rate of 2.11 points per 60 with St. Louis. As evidenced by his salary, combined with going unclaimed while on waivers in January, teams clearly thought Backes wouldn’t be worth the elevated cap hit he carried.

These were prime conditions for Anaheim to step in. A former captain with deep playoff experience and a hard-nosed, two-way game is literally a bat signal for Ducks General Manager Bob Murray — his green light across the harbor in East Egg, Long Island. Not only that, but Murray made good on his desire to “weaponize cap space” with the relief earned through putting Ryan Kesler and Patrick Eaves on long-term injured reserve, giving the Ducks plenty of leeway to add bad money at the cost of a good asset.

Giving up a promising yet injury-prone forward in Ondrej Kase has been fairly controversial among the Ducks fanbase. Getting a first-round pick was much needed for this rebuilding team, and adding a bit of a wild card in Axel Andersson doesn’t hurt. But due to Backes’ contract and his lack of point production, his value to Anaheim’s future has been harder for some to rationalize.

Backes has never been a significant offensive contributor, surpassing 60 points only once in his career. However, he has been comparable to a player like Ryan Kesler in his prime: a hard-nosed forward who excelled at the defensive aspect of the game — and was even the runner-up to Kesler in the 2011-12 Selke race.

Keeping in mind Backes’ two-way reputation, but knowing how the game has evolved since he earned it, we need to dive deeper into his on-ice metrics to paint a much clearer picture of his impact in Boston and the potential of what he could bring to Anaheim for the remainder of this season and leading into next year.

For this article, we’ll be using Backes’s last three full seasons, as the veteran hasn’t played enough this year to get an accurate sample of his contributions.

Minimum 1000 minutes played.
Natural Stat Trick

Over the last three seasons, David Backes ranks fifth on the Bruins in shot attempts allowed per 60 minutes of ice time. He isn’t far below both Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, two members of a line that is well-known for its defensive strengths.

Obviously it’s one thing to be good at preventing shot attempts. But what about the quality of those attempts? Is it possible that the speed of the game has Backes’ team giving up lots of shots from dangerous areas?

Natural Stat Trick

Actually, it’s quite the opposite. Backes ranks even better here at third on the team, even better than Bergeron, a Selke Trophy favorite year in and year out (note second place, new Duck Danton Henien). Keep in mind that this is a sample of over 200 games — more than enough to come to a confident conclusion.

Now, I know the question entering your mind right about now: “CJ, what if this is just because he has played on a defensively responsible and stacked Boston Bruins team and his numbers have been affected by their systems and his teammates?”

Fair question, valued reader. I appreciate you asking. Fortunately, we have some evidence here that helps address this concern:

Regularized Adjusted Plus-Minus (RAPM), a measure to isolate a given player’s contribution while on the ice independent of all factors that can be accounted for.

These Regularized Adjusted Plus-Minus (RAPM) charts from analysts Evolving-Hockey attempt to isolate how much a player impacts stats like goals, expected goals for, shot attempts for, expected goals allowed and shot attempts allowed on an individual level at even-strength and on the power play, effectively removing as much of the impact of their teammates, coach, ice time and deployment as possible. All of these things can influence a player’s on-ice numbers like goals and shot attempts for and against.

What this finds for Backes is that he’s below the average NHL player in terms of raw goals scored, as well as shot quality. This isn’t surprising, given that his last 20-goal season was in St. Louis. You also don’t need a graph to tell you that Backes isn’t exactly an Alex Ovechkin-level scoring threat. The eye test will do for that evaluation.

However, the CF/60 (unblocked shots + shot attempts for per 60 minutes of play), xGA/60 (expected goals allowed per 60), and CA/60 (shot attempts against per 60) bars stand out here. Backes grades out as a good amount better than the average NHL player in terms of limiting both the number and quality of shots against while he is out on the ice.

Another good metric to look at is Evolving-Hockey’s GAR (Goals Above Replacement) which looks at even-strength offense, even strength defense, power play contributions, shorthanded defense, and penalties drawn and taken and estimates how many goals that player has contributed to their team as compared to what a replacement-level player (think an average AHL call-up) typically would put up.

Looking at the even strength defensive component of GAR, Backes would rank ... wait for it ... third on the Ducks over the last three seasons, only trailing Hampus Lindholm and Josh Manson, also making him the highest ranked forward.

Translation: when David Backes plays, his team doesn’t score much, but they definitely prevent goals effectively.

For an even better visual on Backes’ isolated defensive impact, check out these heat maps from the last three seasons in Boston:


These heat maps show how much of a “threat” a player is at 5-on-5 offense and defense, courtesy of statistician Micah Blake McCurdy of HockeyViz. The top row shows how much better a player (in this case, Backes) is at generating offense (using goals, expected goals, shots, shot locations, etc.) than the average NHL player. In the instance of the 2018-19 season, Backes was 5.5 percent better than NHL average.

On the bottom row, which measures defense, seeing a negative number is good news. Taking into account the same factors as before, the number indicates that the opposing team was 10.2 percent worse than league average at generating offense when Backes was on the ice during the 2018-19 season.

Keep in mind that these visualizations, just like the Evolving-Hockey RAPM graph above, isolate individual performance and adjust for factors out of Backes’ control, such as line mates, time on ice, zone deployment, etc.

There is a saying within the baseball statistics community that “a run saved is as valuable as a run scored.” While I’m not entirely sure the two are exact parallels, it is very clear that preventing shots — and therefore goals — is pretty close to the value of scoring one, considering that goals are what ultimately determine the outcome of a hockey game.

Because defensive impact doesn’t show up in a box score, it’s been historically harder to accurately asses a player’s impact on shot and goal suppression. Even the charts above don’t paint a 100 percent definitive picture of Backes’ defensive contributions because “defense” is a measure the analytics community itself struggles to define. There’s the additional issue that all of the above models are descriptive, meaning they show what his performance has historically been, but they aren’t predictive models. Any assumptions about future production are just that.

However, there is more than enough evidence to show that David Backes, even as a grinding veteran, can create positive value for the Ducks — if not by what he contributes in goal scoring, but in his effectiveness at preventing goals.

There is one valid concern: his age. David Backes is now 35 years old and will be 36 in the final year of his contract with Anaheim. Time remains undefeated: Backes could very realistically could see a steep decline in his defensive abilities. His age also lends itself to a much higher risk of injury, which would undoubtedly accelerate the decline. We saw this in Ryan Kesler, who went from an above-average defender to boat anchor almost overnight when his hip issues began flaring up.

But at least for now, there aren’t signs of a defensive decline in the former captain. His skills in his own end should make him a prime candidate to center Anaheim’s fourth line next year. His leadership experience will also be valuable here, and someone like Kiefer Sherwood, seemingly destined for a bottom-six role with the Ducks next season (should he remain with the team), could be the perfect winger to pair with him. The main thing you’re looking for in a fourth line isn’t necessarily generating tons of offense, and one that can keep the puck out of the defensive end and occasionally chip in a goal or two has plenty of value.

Invaluable leadership skills, combined with great defensive metrics at a $4 million cap hit (and only $1 million in actual salary after a $3 million signing bonus this off-season), isn’t a terrible player to have, especially with the Ducks’ near $7 million in LTIR relief from Kesler’s contract.

For a team that has plenty of questions about its defense corps moving forward, having a center like Backes who can effectively shut down opponents could prove to be useful for Anaheim moving into next season — and hopefully into playoffs.

Salary information provided by CapFriendly. Statistics provided by Hockey Reference, Evolving Hockey, HockeyViz, and Natural Stat Trick.