By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
Here’s something slightly unsettling: David Backes, whose postseason resume was praised by the Bruins upon his signing in 2016, has found a way to fall down the depth chart in back-to-back playoff runs. He started the 2017 playoffs bouncing around the top six but finished it on the third line. He started 2018 on the third line but finished in a fourth-line role.
Here’s something even more unsettling: He ended the 2018 playoffs knocked out of play with a likely concussion on a high hit from the Lightning’s J.T. Miller in Game 5. It’s his second concussion in as many seasons in Boston, and what the 34-year-old Backes considers to be his seventh or eighth concussion in his 12-year NHL career.
Oh, and the cherry on top? He’s making $6 million a year for the next three seasons.
Allow me to confirm that this is not how the Bruins saw this signing playing out through its first two seasons.
When Bruins general manager Don Sweeney committed $30 million to Backes on the first day of free agency in 2016, making Backes his first truly big free agent addition and electing to pay him instead of Loui Eriksson, it was with the idea that Backes would be a new voice in a locker room that needed one after back-to-back collapses out of the postseason picture.
Knowing they were on borrowed time with a grit-based player rapidly approaching his mid-30s (and looking every bit like it), though, Backes’ addition to the Black and Gold’s long-term picture wasn’t just for a different tone in the room.
For a team that would have some wide eyes new to the entire playoff experience by the time they got back there, Backes’ seven goals and 14 points in 20 playoff games in 2016 made him a fit. Add in the intangibles of his willingness to bulldoze an entire five-man unit if it meant his team would leave the scrum with the puck and you had a perfect fit.
But Backes was never an optimal fit with David Krejci like Eriksson in the offensive zone, and he hasn’t been able to bring the game-changing snarl that Milan Lucic did during his prime riding on Krejci’s wing. Even Backes’ leg-up above the rest — his ability to play center and give the Bruins a fearsome three-man punch down the middle — has been questionable at best. And Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy is honest about the fact that he views Backes as more of a winger than he does a center.
The production — often stop-and-start due to injuries experienced (especially this past season) — has suffered as a result of Backes’ lack of a home, too, with just 31 goals and 71 points through 131 games in a Boston uniform. The playoff results have not been there, either, with just three goals and seven points in 18 playoff games over the last two years.
And the Bruins are now left to hope that they can salvage at least one solid season out of No. 42 before it’s too late. Or before his contract becomes the true albatross it has from Day 1 been destined to become, at the very least.
After a year in which Backes went through a colon procedure, suspension, deep gash to his leg on a cut from a skate blade, and a season-ending concussion, it’s hard to feel inspired about what’s to come in an increasingly faster NHL.
“Well, hopefully he is going to be healthy,” Sweeney said of his expectations out of Backes moving forward. “He went through – even he, yesterday, describing it as a pretty difficult year. I don’t know if a lot of players are going to play through some of the things David went through this year. It speaks to his character. It’s a big reason why we went out and got him and to what he was going to offload at times from other players on our hockey club that we all speak about from a core standpoint and the impact they make from a leadership standpoint. It’s a lot to lump on players individually to carry that burden, and I think David’s done a really good job of coming in and helping in that regard and spreading it around.”
But as we’ve seen countless times in today’s NHL, the leadership aspect means very little — or becomes over-priced, above all else — if it’s not on the ice and truly there for the organization’s young guns in times of need. Like, y’know, the postseason.
You can find somebody to come in, play on the fourth line and give a rah-rah speech for a lot less than $6 million a year. Shawn Thornton became a cult hero in Boston for that exact thing and I’m not sure his earnings in town totaled $6 million. And speaking on the flip side of that leadership element, leader-types such as the bought out Dennis Seidenberg and waived and eventually traded-with-salary-retained Matt Beleskey were players that Sweeney was willing to move on from when they weren’t performing up to their pay. Both of those players made a heck of a lot less than Backes, too, for what it’s worth.
In other words, the Bruins need more out of Backes — and they need it yesterday.
Meaning the Bruins have to hope that Backes regains his offensive form, or at least reaches the 40-point plateau, especially if he’s going to continue to receive power-play minutes like he did. And hope that he finds a home similar to the one he was able to find with Danton Heinen and Riley Nash until their lack of postseason production (one of the big reasons why Backes is here, remember) forced Cassidy to mix it up and move everybody around the Boston lineup.
But the Bruins are not getting any slower (they simply can’t afford to in an undeniably rapid-fire Atlantic Division, as the playoffs confirmed), and with Sweeney expected to let almost all of his pending free agents walk, they’re not getting older.
Given that he’s not viewed as a fit with Krejci or Patrice Bergeron, this means that Backes will most likely have to ride on the wing of a rookie on the Bruins’ third line or fight for his ice-time on a grind-them-down fourth line. And to truly succeed under Cassidy, it honestly seems that Backes is going to have reinvent who he is as a player — and at 34 and with over 15,000 minutes of NHL ice-time that seems unlikely — or it’s over in terms of remaining an effective, worthwhile asset.
“From a pure production standpoint, a little bit is determined where he plays in the lineup,” Sweeney said of Backes’ potential impact next year and beyond. “Nothing against Bruce, but he’s putting together the lineup and did a really good job this year. We played [Backes] on the power play. His offense comes in spurts probably more so than what he used to from a volume standpoint. He’s also playing with younger players at times that’s he’s helping on and off the ice. I think we looked at David Backes as providing balance in our locker room, on the ice, not just from a pure production standpoint.
“Do I hope he becomes a 20-50 guy again? I absolutely do. I don’t know [if he does], that’s up to him. He hasn’t the last two years. But at times, if he was healthy, he was trending in that way. A little bit depends on the usage piece.”
If that doesn’t happen, the Bruins are stuck. Even more than they already appear to be given Backes’ contract and its clauses.
The simple point, however, is that the timeline has been thrown out the window.
Whether they’ll say it or not, the Bruins undoubtedly thought they were going to get a better first two years (two healthier seasons) out of Backes. They also thought these kind of scoring slumps and literal slowdowns would come in the back-half of his contract when the Bruins’ bounty of youthful pieces were finally ready for primetime.
Instead, that time is now.
Which will force a player paid $30 million to play a certain style to change exactly that in an attempt to reverse the clock. Or make the team that looks drastically different than even they thought they would at this point carve out a spot they didn’t anticipate having on their roster when it truly became their time to legitimately compete for a Stanley Cup.
It’s all become very unsettling, and sooner than anybody could have realized.
Ty Anderson is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Ty? Follow him on Twitter @_TyAnderson.