David Backes Boston-bound with 5x 30

 

Boston’s first major free agent signing since 2013 when the B’s inked Jarome Iginla to a one-year, incentive-laden deal fell quickly in the opening moments of the annual July 1 NHL free agent frenzy when word broke that St. Louis Blues captain David Backes had signed a 5-year pact with the Black and Gold worth an AAV of $6M.

Here is a dated, but  informative video from the NHL:

What’s interesting is that Backes had been somewhat of a hot topic of late with B’s 1st-round choice and St. Louis native Trent Frederic mentioning him at the draft as his hockey idol and player he most tries to emulate. Now, Frederic will likely share the Boston dressing room with him at some point.

As for Backes- where to start? How about with this OT goal vs. Chicago to kick off the opening round?

We’ll hit the good:

The Blues captain has been one of the most effective two-way centers in the NHL since he broke out with 31 goals and 54 points (165 PIMs) in 2008-09.  He’s never topped more than 62 points in a year, but he’s so valuable as a space-eating, versatile forward who can move between center and the right wing. He plays that physical, grinding game the B’s want to get back to, but he’s skilled enough to be a consistent scoring presence.

Loui Eriksson was also a versatile winger for Boston, but he lacked the size and physicality that the 6-3, 220-pound Backes brings. He’s a year younger than Backes, but where the Bruins were only willing to go four years for him, they went an extra 365 days for their newest player.

There are things Backes can do that Eriksson simply couldn’t. What is interesting to me here is that if the Bruins and Blues had been able to get past the stumbling blocks of a reported bad contract needing to go back Boston’s way in order to consummate that trade, Backes would likely have remained put in St. Louis and the B’s would be working on signing Shattenkirk to an extension instead. It’s interesting food for thought, but the Blues, who allegedly really wanted to extend and keep Backes and Troy Brouwer (who signed with Calgary today) and were more than willing to sacrifice Shattenkirk to get that done, now are essentially stuck with their third choice. Blues GM will have some personal relationship management to do, and in the end- Shattenkirk could very well be a big trade deadline move for the team next winter if he’s not willing to sign on in the long term.

As a captain and character guy- Backes is a proven leader who will instantly bring a needed leadership presence that the B’s have missed. Since Mark Recchi was in the room, the team has lacked for a vocal leader who commands respect beyond the quiet professionals that currently comprise the club’s core of leaders.

Now for the bad:

To get Backes, the B’s had to commit five years and $30 million. That’s a deal that immediately represents risk for the team and the front office that signed him.

Since I raised the point repeatedly with respect to Milan Lucic and his (still awaiting the details) contract with the Edmonton Oilers in terms of not much tread on the tire/much mileage on the engine- it’s the same, if not an even bigger case for Backes, because he’s four years older than Lucic is and has similar wear and tear concerns given the style of game he plays. It takes a heavy toll on the body and if Backes can’t hold up physically in years 3-5, the B’s will be in it deep.

When you look at the potential for the Bruins to get a less-than-average return in the long term on the big contract, the possibility is real that Boston could be hamstrung when it comes to retaining some of the higher-end youngsters who will come due for deals when Backes is still on the books. If he isn’t producing for the club, then they’ll be back to where they were when the previous GM had to move the ever popular Johnny Boychuk for futures at a time when expectations for the club were high. In hindsight, Brandon Carlo and Ryan Lindgren are promising prospects who will in all likelihood play for the Bruins, but there is no question that not having Boychuk for the last two seasons has been an enormous factor in the defense’s plunge to the bottom of the league.

Don Sweeney and Cam Neely are courting disaster with a signing of this magnitude- they aren’t gambling here…because Backes is a proven commodity who despite his age still brings a lot to the table. However, when we’ve watched the way injuries and age have helped speed Zdeno Chara’s decline, it is a fair point to raise here. Backes is leaving his prime, but the Bruins just paid him like a guy who is in it…kinda like Lucic is.

Now, here’s some encouraging news- Backes scored 7 goals and 14 points in 20 playoff games. His level of play went up, as he posted career bests in the postseason and led his team by example to the Western Conference final, where they ran out of gas against the upstart San Jose Sharks club. His previous postseason high for games played was just 9 contests, so it isn’t like Backes has had much experience going deep into the playoffs, but he performed like a star and captain at age 32- that had to be a key in terms of what impressed the Bruins enough to take the plunge.

Unfortunately, the modern NHL continues down a path whereby exorbitant prices are paid in the offseason to players who typically won’t justify those contracts from start to finish. That makes the lower-cost ELC and bridge contracts for younger players more critical than ever, so when people express concern for what could happen down the road to rising stars like David Pastrnak, for example, that shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand, which is what I did. A mistake for which I apologized. I have to think that management is already looking ahead to Pastrnak and figuring out how to keep him. That, in my mind, started last year when he asked for the Bruins to release him to play for his country at the World Jr. Championship and they obliged- even though they incurred all the risk had some catastrophic injury happened to him. That’s the kind of thing that can help strengthen the bridge to longer-term contracts and a presence with the team that showed you respect, though it would be naive in the extreme to think that a player like Pastrnak would turn down a massive offer sheet elsewhere because the B’s honored his request.

Ultimately, Backes is now a Bruin. Fans should look forward to what he can bring as someone who can do just about everything and has come up against Boston in big moments in the past. But, that doesn’t mean embracing a player without taking a hard look at the dollars and cents and where a deal like this could come back to haunt down the road.

The big question is the same for all GMs who are spending available cap space today: are you paying the player for what he did for someone else, or because you think he’s going to provide the same level of performance for you? If the answer is the latter, then we have no choice but to cross the fingers and hope that the worn tread on the tire won’t be an issue. Because if injuries force Backes out for extended periods, or his normal 20-30 goals per season drops to 10, seeing that $6M bite out of the cap will be a bitter pill.

For now, you look at the team today- and they’ve lost a little offense from Eriksson, but gained a measure of size and heaviness- made themselves tougher to play against. Backes is a good fit for Boston, and one can only hope that unlike other big-ticket free agents of the past who signed bloated deals at age 32, that he’ll stave off the effects of Father Time and be a part of a winning solution for the Bruins going forward.

***

The Bruins also re-signed trade deadline acquisition John-Michael Liles to a one-year $2M extension. That’s solid for the player who still has the wheels and puck-moving chops to be an effective middle tier role player. He helped boost the B’s offense in the first 10 days after he was picked up, but like the rest of the club, came down to earth and wasn’t able to make enough of a difference to prevent the late-season implosion.

It will be interesting to see how Liles does with a full training camp and opportunity to adjust to the new coaching staff.

However, Boston’s biggest need remains at the defense position and Sweeney has yet to address it.

Whether that comes via trade involving forward parts that can now better afford to be moved with the Backes addition or the team is looking at another bigger name (there aren’t many) UFA remains to be seen. The right-shooting Jason Demers is still on the market at the time of this writing, but probably not for long.

Shots fired: Report- Eriksson to Vancouver, Khudobin back to B’s

Nick Kypreos reporting that Loui Eriksson has agreed to terms on a 6-year deal with the Vancouver Canucks. AAV to be determined, but have to think it will be around $5.5-6M range- too rich for the Bruins, in all honesty.

The Bruins now just have D Joe Morrow and winger Jimmy Hayes to show for the Tyler Seguin trade that happened just three years ago on July 4th. The criticism will only grow, as once again- it was the return, dummy. Seguin still has a lot of growing up to do, but man- the guy is a super star and the B’s failed to get commensurate value. Period. End of story. There’s no dodging that one, even if I still maintain that I understood the reasoning behind moving him.

What adds fuel to the fire is that the B’s could have flipped Eriksson to St Louis back in February for Kevin Shattenkirk, but neither team could make the money work. Based on connected sources to both teams, I am told that there is a sense of regret that the sides did not work harder to make it happen. The Bruins have now lost Eriksson to free agency for zip and the Blues may have lost David Backes to the open market as well.

Ultimately, though- unrestricted free agency represents a sense of insanity, where teams pay above market prices for older players who more often than not represent the law of diminishing returns. If the Bob McKenzie rumor that the Bruins are in heavy on Backes, (and hey- it’s Mr. McKenzie- no one is going to doubt it for a second) and they end up with him, this one is going to sting for Doug Armstrong, as dealing Shattenkirk to the B’s would have likely given him the cap space to get a deal done with his captain.

Backes makes perfect sense when you look at what the Bruins value- size, ability but leadership and character. They have to get bigger up the middle, and getting him would mean that Don Sweeney can flip other assets for help on defense.

Farewell, Loui- he was a good Bruin and had his best season in Boston at the right time. These guys should be given every chance to cash in, and Eriksson did just that. The B’s wanted him back, just not at the price Jim Benning was willing to pay. Now, we wait to see who the B’s bring in to shore up their non-playoff squad that is weaker than it was without Eriksson.

Also from Mssr. McKenzie- the Bruins are reportedly bringing back goalie Anton “Dobby” Khudobin– the diminutive but plucky netminder who played well for them as Tuukka Rask’s backup before signing with Carolina a few years back. He’s bounced around after failing to earn that elusive No. 1 spot elsewhere, and this is a fine (and cheap) signing to bring in veteran insurance, while Malcolm Subban may still be given every opportunity to earn the backup spot. Jeremy Smith is no doubt gone now that Borat is indeed back.

EDIT: He’s on a 2-year, $2.4 M deal which helps keep the costs down on Rask’s $7M hit- $1.2M for a capable backup is a little higher than ideal, but the B’s know what they are getting and he’s shown he can get the job done when called upon, despite the lack of ideal NHL size for the position.

NHL’s final four: ‘Bolts, Blues draw 1st blood and other musings

It’s May, which not only means we’re into the NHL’s Stanley Cup playoffs semifinal round, but it is also my busiest time of year with the annual pre-NHL draft heavy lifting. Between my obligations to Red Line Report and New England Hockey Journal, haven’t had much time for the blog of late, but things will slow down considerably in the next week-10 days.

One bit of cool news- Red Line will be the NHL Network’s official content provider for the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, so we’re excited to bring you, the fans some unique insights on many of the players as they get drafted. Kyle Woodlief and I will be working on profiles of players, so I encourage you to tune into NHLN’s draft broadcasts on Friday night and Saturday.

Now, as for the NHL postseason…

I went against my gut and picked against the St. Louis Blues in one of my playoff brackets and regretting that. They’re going to win the Stanley Cup, and I should have known better. There are no flaws on that team with top-to-bottom roster depth. They have elite skill from Vladimir Tarasenko, plus quality veterans like David Backes and Alex Steen. Their blue line is set with a great 1-2 punch of Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk, plus huge and talented newcomer Colton Parayko looks like he’ll step in to fill the void when Shattenkirk likely becomes a cap casualty. In net, Brian Elliott is playing the best hockey of his career, and Jake Allen is the future of that club. Full marks to GM Doug Armstrong and his staff for putting a contender together…he really wanted to add Loui Eriksson to the mix but couldn’t make the cap numbers work enough to pursue the kind of trade Boston wanted, but make no mistake- this roster is good enough to go all the way, and they will.

Here’s a pet peeve of mine, and I’m sure to get some disagreement on it, but here goes nonetheless…

I keep seeing people out there on Twitter and elsewhere talking about how Joe Thornton “deserves” a Stanley Cup. Let me be clear here:

No. He. Doesn’t!

No one “deserves” anything in the NHL- you have to earn it. I felt the same way when Ray Bourque was playing for the Colorado Avalanche. I was absolutely happy when Bourque skated off into the sunset with his only NHL championship, but if he “deserved” to go out that way, he and his team earned that right after 16 wins and a come-from-behind effort against the Devils. Life is hard and often unfair- good people can work for something and not achieve it but I refuse to buy into the theory that just by playing a long and successful career, you “deserve” a championship. Championships are special and winning them not only takes a lot of skill and hard work, but a good amount of luck, too.

If Thornton and (Patrick Marleau) his Sharks win the Cup this year, so be it- it will have been earned. But pardon me for not jumping on the sentimentality train here…I don’t think the Sharks are good enough. They’ve never been able to win the big game and get over the hump. Wanting someone to win and them being good enough to do so are two different things. We can be happy for him if he succeeds, but you’ll never, ever see me pulling for a player to go all the way because he “deserves” it. I’ll pull for someone because I want him to win or because I think his team is good enough to be a champion.

It’s that simple.

(But while I’m on the subject of the Sharks- how about that Joe Pavelski, eh? Talk about a winner! Joe Playoffski is at it again and he looks like a man on mission, so if there is one guy who aims to make a difference vs the Blues in the Western Conference final, it’s him. (And for the record- snagging Pavelski late in the storied 2003 draft is one of Sharks chief scout and good guy Tim Burke’s finest moments.)

Hat’s off to the Tampa Bay Lightning.  They took Game 1 against Pittsburgh of the Eastern Conference final after losing yet another key player.

That team has weathered injuries that would cripple just about anyone else, but like the Blues, the ‘Bolts are built to win it all after falling to the Chicago Blackhawks a year ago in the SCF final series.

Who would have thought that without Steven Stamkos, they would be where they are- up 1-0 over the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference final? With three more wins, Tampa has a chance to do what they could’t last year but the hits keep coming- Ben Bishop left Game 1 injured in an eerie parallel to last year’s playoffs. Depending on how much time Bishop misses, I wouldn’t bet against his backup, Andrei Vasilevskiy…the 19th overall pick in 2012 could be like another upstart young goalie turning heads in this year’s postseason (more on him later). He came in a year ago and performed well for Bishop, and he could do it again.

This club is talented, deep and experienced- don’t sleep on them.

I’ll admit it- I’m glad to see Mike Sullivan doing well with Pittsburgh. The Marshfield native and former BU star turned NHLer with multiple teams including the Bruins was a good coach for the B’s who was a victim of bad timing and a lack of vision by Boston ownership coming out of the lockout. As you may recall, he was behind the bench for Patrice Bergeron’s rookie season, recognizing the talent and character of Boston’s current franchise face even at 18.

Team owner Jeremy Jacobs allegedly issued instructions to then-GM Mike O’Connell not to sign any of the team’s unrestricted free agents entering the lockout season, anticipating the market to be flooded with veteran players when certain teams would have to become cap compliant. That meant that key guys like Mike Knuble, Brian Rolston and Michael Nylander were allowed to walk with no talent coming in that summer. Contracts tolling for the non-hockey year of 2004-05 resulted in the loss of 31-year-old D Sergei Gonchar to free agency, which cost them Shaone Morrisonn, their 2004 1st-round pick (Jeff Schultz) and 2004 2nd-rounder (Mikhail Yunkov) for what a rental player. Shades of Al Iafrate for Joe Juneau all over again- maybe one day the B’s will be able to fleece the Capitals like that.

Mr. Jacobs apparently didn’t see the salary rollback coming, so the deep talent pool never came to fruition and the B’s were caught holding the bag, missing out on prime FA targets in 2005. Sullivan paid the price, as the uninspired Bruins crashed in 2005-06, setting the stage for the major house cleaning that brought on the Peter Chiarelli era.

The Penguins were underachievers for much of the year until Sullivan stepped in and the players began firing on all cylinders. It’s similar to Dan Bylsma’s arrival in 2009. What’s most interesting is watching Matt Murray seize the starting job in net after Marc-Andre Fleury was lost to a concussion. Fleury’s healthy again, but watching from the bench.

Sullivan is a smart guy who was a grinding forward- he understands the game and quite frankly- I’m trying to figure out what took so long for him to get another NHL head coaching job. Looks like it was worth the wait.

It sure is looking like the Bruins will be able to draft a pretty good player at 14, assuming they hold onto the pick. It is entirely possible that in order for GM Don Sweeney to acquire the kind of young, cost-controlled NHL defenseman who can help stabilize and rebuild the Boston blue line, he’ll have to give that selection up. I can just sense the wailing and gnashing of teeth if that happens.

You can’t have it both ways, though- fans who want an upgrade on defense must be willing to sacrifice prime assets. San Jose beating Nashville in the second round took what would have been the 18th overall pick and dropped it to anywhere from 27-30 depending on how much further they go. That hurts, but the value of that pick as a trade chip just went down considerably.

The way the Bruins will look at it is this: if they can get a proven commodity at a position of critical need, they’ll give up that top-15 selection, which may or may not ever pan out and roll the dice with San Jose’s pick at the bottom of the 1st round. After a 10-selection 2015 draft, stockpiling draft choices is less important right now than hitting on the picks they do have. In the end, it all comes back to the old Sam Pollock-ism: Whichever team gets the best player, wins the trade. Calgary won when Boston dealt them Dougie Hamilton, with a wait-and-see caveat attached to Zach Senyshyn, Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson and Jeremy Lauzon. Giving up a chance at what should be a nice player at 14 is the price you pay in the grand scheme of things to swallow hard and do what is right for the hockey club in order to make it better now.

So, while draftniks stand to be disappointed, I’d be surprised as it stands on May 16 if the Bruins end up making both selections in Buffalo. However, it takes two to tango for any trade to happen, and Sweeney has already shown that if he can’t get the right value, he’s willing to do the unpopular thing if he feels it’s best for his team.

I guess we shall see.