Well, you read the news around the same time I did. David Backes is on the waiver wire.
It was a decision that felt like the best of the least good options regarding a contract that in hindsight seems like more of “The thing that will inevitably kill Don Sweeney” with each passing day, especially now that they’ll still basically have to keep paying it, but it was one that was inevitable.
But to end like this? With a tiny popcorn fart of a year, then heads to Providence?
That David Backes? The one who spent most of his adult life as the captain or a captain? That heart and soul guy everybody loves? How did that happen? How does any of this happen?
The Left Brain says...
In hindsight, there didn’t seem to be a way that David Backes was ever going to finish his contract in Boston. There were just too many factors going against him. His multiple concussions (including the ones he got here, including one just five months into his deal), the fact that almost ten years of power forward hockey were already put into him, and the increasing needs of the team; which at the time was getting faster. The team did...He didn’t. Oh sure he told good stories about the adapting he did, training more like a hockey player one year, getting skating advice the next, but it never seemed to translate onto the ice. The stories of improvement he swore was coming were just that: a cute story.
The NHL only ever likes cute stories in hindsight when they work.
To his credit, his analytics were consistently pretty good defensively speaking, and his first year had him definitely showing some promise with the 38 points he got...and then 38 points somehow became a mountain he couldn’t surpass again. His usage as a net-front presence (a good place for any enterprising power forward to be) was spotty at best as he seemed more at home getting into shoving matches than trying to establish any room in front at all to work with and maybe bang home rebounds or what have you, so they switched it up. And he did fine...but it was never enough to translate into tangible results that would warrant more ice time. He was depth, and at this point was probably only ever going to be depth. And the team was starting to get more impactful depth pieces.
And that became a huge problem for him, because not having a clear reason to stick around on a team getting younger is a sure sign of a big, expensive rock waiting to be inevitably broken down and moved...and the road crews showed up in 2018. His place in the lineup fluctuated. He tried to be an enforcer, to which the team openly said out loud “He should not do that thing.” He watched Game 7 from the rafters and watched his team stink up the joint in the worst performance of their year. The most notable thing that happened to him this year was accidentally knocking a player out while concussing himself in the process. It’s been a BAD year and a half for David, and the decision largely seems to stem from either telling him he needs to re-find his game, or find some way...any way...to get him producing at some level.
Trading him really wasn’t an option. Backes’ value was never higher than the minutes before he signed his contract, and it’s half life as it turned out, was around the same as Polonium-208...and by 2018’s end, just as radioactive. This wasn’t going to be solved by asking Bob Murray or Jim Benning or whoever’s in charge of the circus in St.Paul to fix it. They could’ve had him as the world’s most expensive fourth liner (which they did, for the record), or they could’ve played him at center, or any number of things. None of whom were going to make up for the lack of shooting, nor the lack of production.
Instead, they waived him. They got approximately a million dollars worth of Cap Space out of the deal, and he will suit up for Providence against Bridgeport at the earliest, or against Springfield on Sunday. Meanwhile, the player he was set to replace will continue to suck up minutes for the Vancouver Canucks as “the guy on Bo Horvat’s right”.
This deal will likely hang over Sweeney’s head like a battleaxe suspended from string for a good long time, and will likely be held as an example and a grim warning of what happens when you buy way too high on free agents over thirty, as well as the serrated, double-edged sword the No-Movement Clause is.
But the right brain says...
There is a very good reason David Backes has spent much of his adult life wearing a letter on the front of his sweater; he’s a committed leader to whoever and wherever the hell he is at any given moment. He was willing to go above and beyond for practically every player he’s ever played with, and has been a beloved Alternate captain by the guys in the room since the minute he got here. Part of it was familiarity. Everyone kept saying during the late 2000’s-early 2010’s how much fun a Blues-Bruins playoff series would be (right up until they got one) primarily because of how he was a poster boy for that style of hockey, and how naturally he seemed to fit the team when at long last he showed up in Black and Gold. He chummed it up with Charlie McAvoy early on, he was good with the media, he became a spokesman for dogs, and the team seems genuinely pretty sad he was waived. He was able to enjoy a level of elder-statesman in this game that very few ever truly get to.
A player who’s good in the room can only be valued on their heart, after all, and he had one that could power car engines. It really sucks that a dude who USA hockey could call an unambiguous win from their development side has to have this happen to him. It really sucks that the guy so willing to put so much of his body to the task of winning found he really didn’t have that much left to give. It absolutely sucks that the chance of getting his name on the cup after decades of struggle didn’t amount to anything, even when the Blues might’ve been good enough with him on the team to do it, and even moreso when the Bruins had a chance to fix that and just...didn’t.
Maybe he’ll find it in Providence, maybe he’ll rebound and be a better player. He has the drive, he has the ability. If there’s one story he can absolutely tell and end up making good on, it’s a comeback. And everybody loves a comeback.
But it’s a hard road back to the big dance. Especially for someone his age, and with the mileage on his corpse.
I think in spite of him being such a frustrating player, the reason you might be having a war with the rational and emotional side of yourself is that, at the end of the day, David Backes is still a guy people want to like. And it’s hard not to. It’s a real sobering reminder that time is an undefeated bastard, and it refuses to play favorites, even with players you like. Some fans haven’t grown up in a world without him, and it’ll be really weird if this is an impetus for him to retire.
If this is it? Then it’s like a good many players who end their careers in less-than-great ways or simply fizzle out. And maybe that’s why it does feel a little bitter. Because those are the worst kinds of retrospective careers: Ones with a what-if attached. The open ended shrug. The ones too good to be ignored in their day, but either couldn’t keep up when time finally came around for them, or the teams that could’ve made them all-time legends and most of all, champions, failed them. You know there’s plenty of names in your head swimming around thinking of them. The Neelys, Kariyas, and Bures of the world. Those who absolutely deserved a lap with the cup, and never got it because fate is a cruel, harsh thing.
I really hope this isn’t the end of his career in hockey, but we may have to accept this is probably the last chapter of his time as a Bruin. And it just sucks that it had to happen like this.