By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
It’s August, and David Backes is still on the Bruins.
And in what feels like related news, restricted free agents Brandon Carlo and Charlie McAvoy remain unsigned, and with a noticeable lack of progress there. How Bruins general manager Don Sweeney works his way out of this cap space pickle is anybody’s guess, but I’m beginning to have my doubts when it comes to the Bruins successfully moving No. 42 between now and Game 1.
I mean, if the Bruins were going to move Backes, I’d like to think it would have happened by now. The Bruins have Backes’ trade list, and some other “immovable” contracts have already moved; Toronto paid the necessary premium to ditch the final year of Patrick Marleau’s contract over a month ago. The Oilers somehow found a way out of the Milan Lucic contract (the worst contract in the league) — and sent it to a rival no less. And though these are not in the same ballpark considering their long-term injured reserve complications/benefits, it’s worth mentioning that Vegas successfully moved the David Clarkson contract, and Tampa did the same with Ryan Callahan.
Before you ask, throw the idea of a buyout right out the window. It does nothing to help the Bruins, and that time has since passed. Same for sending Backes to Providence. You can no longer ‘bury’ contracts from a financial standpoint, so sending Backes to Providence would only free up less than $1 million in cap space.
So what if the Bruins had to get tricky to ditch Backes? What if the best way to move on from Backes was to trade his bad contract for a similarly bad contract, which is sort of what the Oilers did when they moved Lucic for James Neal?
Let’s play a round of Meaningless August Hypotheticals…
Now, swapping bad contracts isn’t foolproof. But let’s say the bad contract you would be taking on in order to move Backes is… oh I don’t know… the one Loui Eriksson signed with the Canucks? I feel like I have to stress the fact that there’s absolutely nothing to this on a “multiple sources!!!!!!” level (I thought the Meaningless August Hypothetical part gave it away), but it feels like an interesting August discussion, and with some legitimate points to be made.
First, the facts.
Eriksson successfully turned a 30-goal, 63-point 2015-16 season in Boston into a six-year, $36 million deal with Vancouver, where he’s recorded just 31 goals in 196 games over three seasons. Eriksson’s nightly ice-time has noticeably dipped over that three-year stretch, Eriksson admitted that he and Canucks head coach Travis Green don’t “get on 100 percent” and that that lack of trust has made it difficult for Eriksson, who still has another three years on his deal with the Canucks, to be what he was in Dallas and then Boston. Backes, meanwhile, is entering the fourth year of a five-year, $30 million deal signed with the Bruins, and Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy views him as a fourth-liner, which is a problem for a team that already has about five fourth-line talents signed to their roster. Both have trade protection, of course, with Eriksson possessing a full no-trade this season while Backes has a modified no-trade.
And though Eriksson tallied just 11 goals and 29 points in 81 games for the Canucks last year, his 10 goals at even-strength were the fifth-most on the Canucks. Eriksson also put up 1.66 points per 60 minutes at even-strength (fifth-best mark among Vancouver forwards) last season, while Backes averaged 0.99 points per 60 at five-on-five for the Black and Gold, which finished as the the second-worst figure among B’s forwards with at least 600 minutes of action to their name (only Joakim Nordstrom was worse on this front). Backes also had just 0.38 goals per 60 minutes last season, which was the worst among Boston forwards, and ranked 307th out of 338 qualifying NHL forwards last year.
The one non-statistical advantage Backes had over Eriksson when the Bruins went with David over Loui in 2016 was his veteran know-how and leadership. But that failed to push the Bruins past Backes’ former team in the 2019 Stanley Cup Final, which ended with Backes scratched due to his ineffective play, so I’d like to consider that narrative dead and buried. The other advantage was No. 42’s ability to play center. He simply hasn’t done that on anything even close to a regular basis since coming to Boston, and Cassidy doesn’t view him as an option there.
Neither team should feel satisfied with the return on their respective investments.
Now, the fun of a deep dive.
Eriksson having an extra year on his deal compared to Backes could seemingly help the Bruins in this hypothetical, as they could theoretically ask the Canucks to retain some salary or take on one of Boston’s other, lower-tier contracts that are hamstringing them right now (such as Kevan Miller or John Moore). The Canucks have their own problems to solve, but if there’s a deal the B’s could win, you’d like to think it would be with ex-Bruins front office exec and current Canucks general manager Jim Benning. And though the Bruins were not willing to make Eriksson a $6 million per year winger in 2016, would they object to paying him $5 million per year should the Canucks retain some cash?
They really shouldn’t.
When the Bruins acquired Marcus Johansson at the deadline, you heard the typical and nonsensical, caveman grumbling about how Johansson was “too soft” to be successful in the postseason. Micheal Ferland’s monstrous hit on him didn’t help. But then you saw Johansson’s smarts and possession game come through in a major way for the Bruins during their four-round run, and prove to be a solid fit with Charlie Coyle on Boston’s third line. Johansson also had that versatility as a left shot that could play both the left and right side, just like Eriksson. Look at their production rates over the last few years and you’ll see a more than a few similarities between the Swedish wings.
You could see Eriksson 2.0 fitting on Boston’s third, second, or even first line. They have that much uncertainty. And he’d certainly contribute more than Backes would in any of those roles. Given the way Backes unsuccessfully bounced around Cassidy’s lineup throughout the season, that’s clearly no longer up for debate.
There’s also this: David Krejci loved playing with Eriksson. So much so that he actually went public with some pretty obvious gripes with the B’s not re-signing him. It’s not hard to see why. In over 700 minutes together in 2015-16, the Krejci-Eriksson combination was on the ice for 36 goals for and just 18 against, controlling possession at over 51 percent and boasting a plus-43 shot differential. In over 300 minutes away from Eriksson, Krejci’s line was outscored 18-13.
Why is this relevant in 2019?
Well, the Bruins are (as always) still searching for a top-six wing. And they’re conducting that search with absolutely no cap space to their name. So when talking about top-six options right now, you’re honestly talking about Year 3 of hoping Anders Bjork and Peter Cehlarik can play in the NHL, moving Coyle to the wing and away from center (bad idea), and/or banking on free agent Brett Ritchie (four goals in 53 games last season) to rediscover his shooting percentage luck. It feels a lil’ closer to the hockey equivalent of Brewer-Brasier-Barnes than I’d like to admit.
And Krejci, for what it’s worth, has told Cassidy in the past that he would love to play with David Pastrnak. But the effectiveness of Pastrnak skating to the right of Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron has often proven to be too good for Cassidy to break up. That’s typically left Krejci to skate with a revolving door of linemates. Consider this: The Czech center played at least 50 minutes with seven different winger combinations last season and still had a career-high 73 points. A touch of consistency there, especially with another linemate he’s confident in, could make a big difference.
Of course, the odds of this actually happening are probably somewhere in the less than five percent range. Maybe even less than two percent. But with the Bruins in dire need of cap space to re-sign two crucial pieces of their present and future, and with the team still setting their sights on Stanley Cup contention in 2020, everything about this summer should scream “no stone unturned.”
Even if it requires swapping bad contracts to create even a sliver of room.