By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
The day everybody knew would come finally arrived Wednesday night in Philadelphia.
929 days and just 169 games after Bruins general manager Don Sweeney handed David Backes a deal to pay him $30 million over five years, the 34-year-old Backes became a legitimately unplayable piece in the eyes of Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy.
The decision to finally move away from Backes crept in as slow as his 2019 forecheck, and seemed like a mercy kill after a week of completely forgettable games playing alongside Jake DeBrusk and David Krejci. (It certainly didn't help that the replacement for the veteran Backes on Wednesday, AHL recall Peter Cehlarik, recorded two goals in just 17:40 of time on ice in a losing effort. Backes, by the way, has two goals in his last 214:40 dating back to Dec. 8.)
But the message sent, even if it's only for one night should Backes return to action Thursday night against the Blues, spoke to a greater point confirming that Cassidy and Co. are simply out of ideas to 88-in-a-DeLorean Backes back to life.
And for the 2018-19 Bruins, it's all one big bowl of yikes, as they certainly must have thought they had more time than this.
Now, thinking a power forward that arrived in town with the 28th-most minutes among NHL forwards from 2006 to 2016 was going to finish his deal in Boston as a 50-point contributor was always crazy. It just wasn't going to happen, even if you choose to operate under the assumption that bruiser-loving Claude Julien was never getting fired.
The Bruins seemingly knew that, too, noting that the final years of the Backes deal would likely see him become more of a Recchi-esque presence helping usher the franchise's next wave in to show 'em what it takes to win at this level.
Backes, an absolutely perfect fit for such a role both on and off the ice, has kinda done that, as they've made the playoffs in both of his seasons in town, and are paced to make it a perfect three-for-three, as of right now.
But crediting this latest version of Backes for that accomplishment would seem reaaal generous.
Through 38 games this year, Backes has totaled just four goals and 12 points, making him one of just 21 NHL forwards to appear in at least 35 games, average at least 13 minutes per night, and fail to total 13 points thus far. His five-on-five production rates are all among the worst of his career, averaging 0.43 goals (third-worst of his career) and 0.86 points (worst of his career) per 60 minutes.
This is the kind of plummet the Bruins were happy to pay for in Year Five -- hopefully after at least one Stanley Cup -- but not this soon and after just three playoff rounds with Backes skating in an increasingly limited role all the while.
In a necessary defense of Backes, however, it feels worth mentioning that he's done everything in his power to change with the game. Namely, Backes slimmed down in an attempt to adapt to the new NHL, arriving to camp down 10 pounds and back to his college weight. He's also avoided a public bitching regarding his role, which cannot be easy when you're somebody as prideful as Backes. He's instead happily taken his lunchpail to work on the fourth line, with kids, whatever.
Still, it feels Backes is a constantly a step behind the action and offensive reads, and does his best work in areas of the rink that have since been foreclosed on in favor of breakneck, vomit-inducing speed up and down the rink.
And with Backes officially scratched out of a healthy Boston lineup on Wednesday, the Bruins had over $11 million of Sweeney signings paid to do anything but play for the Bruins; That includes the $6 million Backes is paid, the $1.9 million the Bruins retained to trade Matt Beleskey, and the near $900,000 the Bruins are paying on the Jimmy Hayes buyout. The only non-disaster among that list (so far) is John Moore, signed to a five-year deal worth $13.75 million last July, who sat on the wrong end of a defensive game for the third game in a row on Wednesday. (Feel like this is an obvious time to ask if you guys are sure that you want Sweeney to sign a 31-year-old Wayne Simmonds for big money this summer.)
All things considered, the Bruins have survived these fiscal losses A-OK.
Unfortunately for Sweeney, though, The Backes Situation (while completely predictable), is easily the most problematic.
Not only are the team's most glaring weaknesses on the roster at positions the Bruins hoped Backes could play in as recently as two and a half seasons ago (third-line center and second-line right wing), but there's no obvious best fit for Backes on this year's Bruins team. It's actually impossible to come up with anything that slots him higher than the fourth line.
You're not breaking up the Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak combo to plug Backes there, you couldn't hide him with the DeBrusk-Krejci duo, and a youth-movement line-rush third line seems like a deathwish. So, you're essentially hoping the Kuraly-Acciari-Wagner line suffers an injury or slows down so you can plug Backes there.
That's a massive problem.
I don't care about his leadership qualities -- and listen, Backes has 'em and then some -- but there's no way to possibly justify paying a fourth-line forward $6 million. It's impossible. There's obvious value in leadership, even if it's on the fourth line (as Shawn Thornton showed for almost a decade), but for almost 10 percent of your salary cap? That's a tough sell, and gets tougher when you realize that Thornton's leadership never ate up more than 1.7 percent of the team's available cap space.
Given those aforementioned needs for the team, and factoring in this group's current championship window before it's officially Rafters Time for Patrice Bergeron and Zdeno Chara, having a $6 million fourth-liner simply isn't doable.
Not that they have many alternatives.
If the Bruins want to move Backes out of trade via trade, they're likely going to have to wait until the summer when his trade protection loosens from a full no-movement clause to an eight-team trade list. But teams are not exactly knocking doors down to acquire a mid-30s player with the injury history and mileage of Backes, meaning the B's are going to have staple something of value to the deal or eat some of the money Backes is owed. It's actually their only path, as a buyout next summer would provide little relief, leaving the team with $5.5 million of dead cap on their 2019-20 books.
It's just a mess no matter the angle taken or preferred endgame for Backes and the Bruins.
A mess Sweeney certainly didn't think he'd have to wonder how to clean up in Year Three, or without a Stanley Cup to fall back on, either.