The professional sports world is an unbiased and often cruel place that never stops moving forward.
This is a tough pill for many players and fans to swallow.
One day, an athlete can be among the best players in their respective league and the next they can be phased out as if none of their past contributions meant a thing.
It’s rarely ever so cut-and-dry and there are often a lot of difficult conversations to be had following a lot of deliberation and decision-making behind the scenes.
This is the case for a player like David Backes.
Backes Earned His Keep in the NHL
The 35-year-old was once one of the better players in the NHL and spent 10 seasons as a member of the St. Louis Blues, half of which were spent as captain.
As a free agent in 2016, Backes would sign a five-year, $30 million contract with the Boston Bruins to bolster their center depth, add a physical presence to the team who also provided leadership and smart two-way decision making.
Unfortunately, the contract looked like a bad one from the day it was signed. This is due to the fact that the team signed Backes to this deal when he was already 32-years-old with considerable taxation on his body from 10 years of playing grueling hockey in the Western Conference.
Though Backes did score 17 goals and 38 points in 74 games in his first season with the Bruins, injuries and a stark decline in speed would soon limit Backes’ ability to contribute on a regular basis with his new team.
Playing in just 57 games the following season, scoring 14 goals and 33 points and recovering from colon surgery following a battle with diverticulitis, Backes would prove he was as tough as they come in his accelerated age by coming back sooner than expected and playing solid hockey in his return.
It certainly painted Backes in a positive light for many Bruins fans though everybody still knew the truth; Backes was far from his prime and this contract was going to be an anchor.
Over the past two seasons, Backes has played in just 86 of a possible 131 games, scoring eight goals and 23 points and looking worse for wear with each passing game.
In a do-or-die Game 7 against his former team, Backes was kept out of the lineup as the Bruins would lose to the St. Louis Blues in the Stanley Cup Final. This was telling and while many will argue that he should have been playing, it’s hard to really say that he’d have made a difference one way or another.
When talking about Backes, head coach Bruce Cassidy shed some light on the situation as well.
“We brought him in to give us some of that bite. It was there for a while and then some concussions came into play.”
With the Bruins losing Tuukka Rask to a concussion recently with no response from the team on the ice, the Bruins have sent a message to everybody on the team with two of the team’s more physical players in Brett Ritchie and now Backes being placed on waivers.
Cassidy would also mention that Backes role with the team just didn’t seem to be there with others in the lineup or knocking on the door.
“We just felt a guy like (Karson Kuhlman) or maybe (Anton Blidh) down the road has more pace to his game to add to, you know, to go that route with David,” Cassidy said Friday. “You’ve got (Chris) Wagner in the lineup who plays the banging role on the fourth line so (Backes) bumps into that. He bumped into (Brett) Ritchie moving to the third line. So there’s a little roster competition that we felt the other guys were a little ahead of them.”
Waiving Backes Wasn’t an Easy Decision
It’s hard to ever talk about Backes in a negative light because he is truly one of the best people in the NHL.
On the ice and off the ice, the veteran forward has always done his part to lead his teammates and be a leader within his community alongside his wife Kelly Backes.
While hockey is first-and-foremost a business, there’s still a lot of human interaction within the entirety of the professional sports realm that will always play a role in how decisions are made. For better or worse, those involved in sports will always be people first.
When Bruins general manager Don Sweeney made the decision to place Backes on waivers on Jan. 17, 2020, then, it was a bitter-sweet moment for Bruins fans.
On the one hand, Backes had done everything he could whenever he was in the lineup to make an impact, regardless of the role given to him. Despite the effort, though, it was clearly a futile attempt to keep a role on a team based on past-merits rather than current ability.
On the other hand, the human hand, Backes was still a vocal leader for the team and has been in the NHL for nearly a decade and a half. Telling someone so involved within the locker room and the community that he’d have to go to the AHL couldn’t have been an easy conversation to have and it would have certainly been one of the harder discussions Sweeney has had to have during his stint as general manager.
Still, while it wasn’t Backes’ fault that he was failing to live up to his contract, one that he was never expected to live up to in the first place, the decision to place him on waivers for purpose of assignment to the AHL was the correct decision. Albeit a very difficult one nonetheless.
Silver Linings for Backes and the Bruins
There are still positives to take away from this situation for both Backes and the Bruins.
For Backes, there are two possible ways this can be beneficial, though they directly contradict each other.
Backes can be assigned to the AHL, suit-up for the team in Providence and help educate all of the young talent on what it takes to make the NHL, how to play the right way and why being a team-player is so important regardless of league or era.
While this seems like a positive for the Bruins – because it is one, it’s a positive for Backes because he’d likely get more ice time in Providence than he ever would have smelled in Boston given his recent production.
This could keep him playing hockey and doing what he loves while also keeping the door open for a potential recall to the big-club if all went well.
Another more unlikely route for Backes would be to not play in the AHL at all, resting his body and finally giving himself a chance to catch up on all of the beatings he’s taken over the years.
It isn’t easy playing hockey professionally and it’s even harder when you play as physical a brand of the sport as Backes. That takes a toll and as mentioned, it’s been noticeable in recent years.
Taking this opportunity to spend more time with his family while preserving his health seems like as good an option as any in theory, though it’s hard to imagine Backes not putting the team first as he has every step of the way throughout his career. Walking away from all of the money left on his deal over the next season and a half also seems unlikely.
Regardless of what Backes does, his assignment to Providence would bury part of his contract, giving the Bruins $1.075 million of relief on the $6 million contract, prorated as of Jan. 18 at noon once he clears for the remaining 78 days of the season.
This may not seem too significant, but it’s still something for the Bruins and every bit of cap space and an open roster spot helps around the Trade Deadline. It’s also something for any team who may be convinced to take on the Backes contract as part of a cap-dump deal, similar to the one that saw Matt Beleskey shipped to the New York Rangers as a part of the Rick Nash trade.
One way or another, Backes will be sorely missed in the Bruins locker room, but his place on the ice just wasn’t justifiable at this stage of his career or the Bruins contention window.