By Matt Kalman. CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Although David Backes technically isn’t past the halfway point of the five-year contract he signed July 1, 2016, he’s entering the back half of the contract, which costs the Bruins $6 million per season under the NHL salary-cap ceiling.
Backes, now 34, hasn’t come close to living up to the money, but he may have given the Bruins what they expected to receive when they landed him as an unrestricted free agent. And all the Bruins might need from him the next few years is to stay healthy and duplicate his production and performance from the first two seasons of the deal.
On the day general manager Don Sweeney took the free agent money that had been allotted to Loui Eriksson and threw it Backes’ way, the first explanations out of the GM’s mouth were about Backes’ leadership skills and the versatility he would give the Bruins in the lineup.
Well there’s no questioning Backes’ leadership. The former St. Louis Blues captain has gone about his business of keeping the Bruins on their toes and mentoring younger players without stepping on toes, especially with Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron assuming most of the leadership responsibility.
“It’s a lot to lump on players individually to carry that burden [of leading],” Sweeney said. “And I think David’s done a really good job of coming in and helping in that regard and spreading it around.”
As for versatility, Backes has played right wing on all four lines during his two seasons in Boston. He’s also played some center and picked up some faceoff responsibilities, especially when he was grouped with Ryan Spooner.
Of course, versatility is only beneficial to a team if it goes hand in hand with production. No one would argue Backes’ counting numbers, including the 14 goals and 33 points he had in 57 games during an injury — and illness-filled 2017-18 season — justify him being the Bruins’ fifth-highest paid forward.
However, Backes produced at some crucial times this past season when the Bruins were decimated by injury. And despite missing time with diverticulitis and a severe cut on his leg, Backes’ points (0.58) and goals (0.25) per game increased from his first Bruins season, and were almost identical to his points (0.57) and goals (0.27) averages in his last season with the Blues.
This has all happened while he’s gotten banged up, has earned his first suspension from the NHL Department of Player Safety and seen his average ice time decrease from 19:14 in 2015-16 to 17:07 in his first year in Boston to 15:24 this season.
Backes was at just 45.91 Corsi For percentage last season, according to Corsica.com. But he was among the bottom third Bruins forwards in offensive-zone starts (20 percent). When he was with his favorite linemates, Riley Nash and Danton Heinen, they started in the defensive zone 50 percent of the time and were basically even in Corsi For.
When Sweeney signed Backes, he expressed hope the player could be a 50-plus-point producer again but also lamented, “you know what you signed up for in this player.” The Bruins were putting a price on intangibles, which isn’t always the best way to operate in a cap environment, but can be excusable if other factors are in play.
First and foremost, the Bruins were coming off two straight failures to make the playoffs and needed a character injection. Once they determined they wouldn’t get that from Eriksson (and imagine the Bruins giving him the extra year at the same money as Backes, which Eriksson got from Vancouver), the pickings were slim.
Eric Staal, a former captain in Carolina, was an obvious target. But he was 31 and coming off a 39-point season. Now that he’s proven to be an exception to the rule about production decreases in a player’s early 30s, he’s one of the league’s great bargains at three years and $10.5 million. But the Bruins weren’t able to promise Staal the top-six minutes the Wild offered.
Troy Brouwer (four years, $18 million with Calgary) and Frans Nielsen (six years, $31.5 million with Detroit) helped establish the market along with Backes and Eriksson. Sure the Bruins could’ve gone the seven-year, $42 million route Buffalo went with Kyle Okposo, but knowing they were going into a youth movement the Bruins needed more experience than Okposo had to offer. Okposo’s production’s been great but there’s no telling where it will go now that he’s past 30 and has five more years on his deal.
So the Bruins paid Backes and the youth movement has gone according to plan. Backes’ presence helped the Bruins give Jake DeBrusk and Danton Heinen an extra year of AHL seasoning while Boston ended its playoff drought in 2017. With other young players up front and on the back end playing at rookie minimums, the Bruins have been able to afford Backes’ pricey leadership and become an elite team.
Going forward, Backes and the Bruins haven’t given up on an increase in production.
“Do I hope he becomes a 20-50 guy again? Yeah, I absolutely do,” Sweeney said, referring to Backes’ goals and points. “I don’t know, that’s up to him. He hasn’t the last two years, but at times, if he was healthy, he was trending in that way, but a little bit depends on the usage piece.
Said Backes: “Yeah that’s my goal, to be a 20-20 [assist] guy that produces and on a third line with less minutes than I’ve played historically in my game, I think being a 20-20 guy’s a goal. That would be a successful season, personally, statistic-wise. That being said if I’ve got five goals and eight assists and we win the Cup, then you can write whatever story you want but I want a picture with the Cup.”
Backes’ salary says he has to be a more dynamic player, but there was nothing the Bruins could do two years ago about the market and about their needs. So when he’s been healthy, Backes has met the club’s expectations. He has helped nurture the youth that’s put the Bruins near the top of the league and they’ve been in the playoffs two straight seasons since he got here. If the Bruins’ youth plan continues to succeed, Backes’ role will continue to shrink and his contract will look more like an albatross that they’ll have to figure out how to throw off their back.
But in a league where four lines are crucial to teams going deep in the postseason, having someone of Backes’ ilk contributing at the pace he has since he joined Boston on a third or even fourth line will make the Bruins a championship threat, especially while there are so many cheaper players outperforming their contracts throughout the lineup.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @MattKalman.