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.