It’s hard to imagine it’s hit this point for David Backes and the Bruins
By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
You may or may not remember this, but the Bruins originally signed David Backes to a one-year deal. Or so you thought.
One of the top talents of the 2016 free agent class, word that Backes was bound for Boston was first reported by TSN’s Bob McKenzie, who said that the then-Blues captain had agreed to a one-year deal. It was a universally loved move by the Bruins. Backes checked a ton of boxes for the B’s, and finding his fit on a one-year trial run seemed like the perfect move for a Boston squad that had choked their way out of postseason play on the final day of the season two years in a row and was in between a youth movement and a ‘final’ hurrah with a core that brought them to Stanley Cup Finals in 2011 and 2013. But McKenzie misspoke and quickly corrected himself, saying that it was actually a five-year pact between Backes and the Bruins.
The move went from fantastic to questionable-at-best in the blink of an eye.
It truly bottomed out this month, too, as the Bruins waived the 35-year-old down to Providence before both sides came to the conclusion that it would be in everybody’s best interest if he did not suit up for the P-Bruins.
“After speaking with David, we have agreed that it is in the best interest of David and the Bruins for him not to play in Providence at this time,” B’s general manager Don Sweeney said. “David is fit and able to play, but in order to preserve all potential options for both David and the Bruins moving forward, we have decided this is the best course of action.”
They can call it what they want, but the Bruins have no interest in Backes, who has significant concussion history, getting hurt in the AHL and becoming ineligible for a potential trade (unlikely) or buyout (very likely) this summer. All it’d take is one awkward collision and the Bruins’ plans for cap relief — even if it’s minimal — fly out the window.
High risk, zero reward.
Now, it wasn’t hard to forecast the Backes contract aging poorly. The Bruins were signing a power forward with declining production into his late-30s. And they were committing $30 million to a player (and captain!) the Blues — fresh off what at the time was their deepest playoff run in almost 20 years — were content to let walk. That alone should’ve been a red flag.
But to think it was ever going to go this poorly for both Backes and the Bruins?
How could anybody have predicted this?
In immediate defense of Backes, the 2016 free agent class has been a disaster pretty much across the board; Milan Lucic signed a seven-year, $42 million deal with the Oilers, but Edmonton ate some money to move Lucic to Calgary this past summer. With 43 goals through the first 293 games of this contract, Lucic goals are worth about half a million of his combined cap hits to date on this contract. Loui Eriksson went to Vancouver on a six-year deal worth $36 million, and has actually produced less than Lucic, and has yet to eclipse the 11-goal mark in any of his four years with the Canucks. Eriksson is just now showing signs of coming back to life for Van City, with four goals and nine points in his last 14 contests. Frans Nielsen ($31.5 million over six years) hasn’t been a fit for some dreadful Detroit teams, and Andrew Ladd ($38.5 million over seven years) and Kyle Okposo ($42 million over seven years) have been almost completely derailed by injuries in New York and Buffalo, respectively.
It might honestly be the worst free agent class of this era (at least at the top, anyway), so the Bruins are not alone in their struggles to justify their over-commitment to No. 42 in both years and dollars.
And the Bruins likely knew they were on borrowed time when it came to Backes.
Backes (infamously) said “I’m 32, not 52” when questions about a five-year commitment came his way back in 2016. But it really wasn’t about the age as much as it was about the mileage. Backes arrived to Boston as one of just 14 NHL forwards to have logged over 7,000 minutes of time-on-ice (Backes checked in at 7,038:11 of action) over the previous five seasons. He had also logged the most shifts among all forwards over that same stretch. The paint may have been fresh, but the tires were worn.
In the B’s eyes, however, they had a couple of years of a highly competitive Backes before things got dicey.
Instead, they were handed black cats and broken mirrors at every turn. In his first year with the Bruins, Backes not only went through a coaching change that didn’t help him find his footing, but struggled to mesh on the wing to the right of David Krejci. And then to the right of Patrice Bergeron. This was where the B’s pegged Backes, too, which only further complicated his fit on the roster. Oh, he also dealt with an elbow ailment (he had the olecranon bursa removed) and a concussion.
The following season wasn’t much easier on Backes, as the 6-foot-3 forward was limited to just 57 games due to diverticulitis, an additional colon procedure, a three-game suspension, and then a rogue skate blade that gashed his leg. Backes then fell down the Boston depth chart further, and saw his season come to an end thanks to a crushing hit from J.T. Miller.
Backes, even with the concussion problems, then tried to morph himself into an enforcer-esque presence for the Bruins the following season in an effort to stick in the lineup. He instead had the least productive season of his NHL career, and couldn’t will himself into relevance for the B’s against his former team in the 2019 Stanley Cup Final, and sat out the final two games of Boston’s Cup loss as a healthy scratch. He didn’t even skate in the pregame warmup prior to Game 7 in Boston.
And even though a summertime trade never came — Backes wanted to make it work in Boston and still held most of the cards when it came to his future, even with a trade list submitted to the Bruins — that was really all she wrote his Boston run.
It was as disappointing as it was frustrating.
It was frustrating because you immediately thought how the Bruins could’ve used that $6 million — or even that $3 million had they been able to trade Backes with up to 50 percent of his salary retained — and how it’d elevate them from Cup contenders to Cup favorites. But it was equally disappointing in the sense that Backes has always been a person you wanted to see succeed, and that he was a player whose struggles weren’t for a lack of trying. Not only is he a tremendous person off the ice, but he was also the ultimate pro who was doing everything he could to make an impact for the B’s. He slimmed down, he tried to get faster. He even worked with a figure skating coach in an attempt to become a more dynamic talent.
But the fit wasn’t there.
Backes’ best fit in 2019-20 was as a fourth liner. The Bruins have more than enough of those both in Boston and within the AHL ranks, and they really like their ideal fourth-line trio with Sean Kuraly between Joakim Nordstrom and Chris Wagner. You also couldn’t justify a $6 million fourth liner at the end of the day (not when you have the holes the B’s do), and not when Bruce Cassidy seemed legitimately concerned about putting Backes out there and risking further damage.
“As a coach, I told it to the players, as a guy that you know as a dad, who has two young [kids], you always want to be careful that you’re pushing guys to play a certain way,” said Cassidy. “Now you’ve got a guy who knows he might be one hit away from having some damage. You’ve got to be careful with that. I know it’s a business but that is the human side of it.
“That was a bit of an issue for me to push him in that direction.”
And in less than four years into a Boston run that began with hopes of being the No. 3 behind Bergeron and Krejci, Backes has gone from a poor fit to a roleplayer to a man without a solidified spot and now a man without a job or future in Boston.
Or in Providence for that matter.
That’s something nobody could have predicted.