Heading into free agency in the summer of 2016, the Bruins were obviously rumored to be interested in signing David Backes.
A big, strong forward who played with a little bit of an edge...what’s not to like?
When the news finally broke on July 1, it was TSN’s Bob McKenzie who reported that the Bruins had signed Backes to a 1-year, $6 million deal. The consensus on Bruins Twitter was that it was a decent deal, a good way to take a flyer on a guy who could improve the team without taking on too much of a burden.
When McKenzie corrected himself and said that the deal was for 5 years at $6 million per year, the reaction changed completely. It was clear, even back then, that this was a deal that was risky at best, crazy at worst.
In a way, it seems like we were always going to end up here. The only question was “when?”
One can’t fault Backes in the slightest for signing that $30 million deal a few summers ago. He was entering free agency with designs on shopping around for the first time, and he got his check. We’d all do the same.
For the Bruins, however, it never seemed to make much sense. The team clearly wanted to bulk up a bit, but even the B’s had to know that committing 5 years to a rough-and-tumble player who was already 32 years old wasn’t the smartest thing to do.
The guess is that in order to woo Backes away from other suitors, the Bruins had to offer enough term to give him security. They did, he took it, and the rest is history.
His first season with the Bruins wasn’t bad, with 17 goals and 21 assists in 74 games. Still, that first year was never going to be the issue. It was always going to be Year 2, Year 3, Year 4 that caused the team trouble.
Eventually, that trouble came. Age was a factor. Speed was a factor. Wear and tear were factors. Still, arguably the biggest factor was concussions. Backes undoubtedly suffered multiple with the Bruins, on top of multiple that he suffered as a member of the St. Louis Blues.
As grinders do, he pressed on. When Backes re-entered the lineup last year and tried to carve out a place as a hybrid-enforcer, it was hard to watch. Everyone, his coach included, knew that he shouldn’t be fighting; everyone, his coach included, knew that there would be no stopping him.
I covered Backes’ first preseason game this season, and while the preseason is usually a crapshoot, I remember thinking that Backes looked like he had a bit more life in his legs.
Something about that stood out: this was a guy who was relegated to the press box for Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, watching the team he left beat the team that left him out to win the championship. It would’ve been easy to pack it in after that.
But after that preseason game, Backes stood before the assembled media and told a wild story: he spent the offseason essentially learning how to skate again, working with a figure skating coach to go back to basics.
As he told it, he found that he couldn’t do a figure skating drill with some kids at a rink where he was getting a skate in, and saw it as an opportunity to do something new to improve his game. In that first preseason game, it looked like it paid off. Maybe there was something there.
Alas, time and injuries come for us all. As this season wore on, it became clear that he still just wasn’t quite there. The scary collision with Scott Sabourin seemed to shake up Backes both physically and mentally, and it’s not hard to see why.
Still, he came back. I was at the game where he scored what would be the game-winning goal against the Montreal Canadiens midway through the third period.
Backes got some rare power play time, and he didn’t let it slip by.
It’s easy to say this now with the benefit of hindsight, but I felt it at the time, too: it was borderline cathartic for Backes. It was a “finally!” type moment, and the fact that it was the game-winner made it even better.
Looking back at it now, it’s not the worst “last NHL goal” to score, if this ends up being it for Backes in the NHL.
As this season wore on, Backes lost what had been the most tenuous of grips on regular playing time, and, with the Bruins seemingly having something in the works with their recent roster moves, the writing was on the wall.
My guess is that were it not for Backes the human, this would have happened a long time ago. He’s a player who’s a stand-up guy, a great mentor for the younger players, a guy who dedicates time to saving dogs, for crying out loud. Had he just been Another Veteran Dude, this probably would have happened a long time ago.
In some ways, the Bruins deserve a bit of credit for making this move. You know it can’t have been easy to go to Backes and deliver that news, knowing you were likely telling him that his NHL career is over.
Backes, to his credit, will likely take this AHL assignment as a pro and say he’ll do what he can to help the P-Bruins while working his way back to the NHL Bruins. If that happens, it would be great. You can’t help but root for the good guys.
In a way, you can’t blame either side for how this turned out. You can’t blame Backes for getting paid and giving it his all. You can’t blame the Bruins for buying into the idea of the younger Backes and hoping for the best (you can, of course, but we won’t go there now).
In the end, however, it seemed like it was always going to come to this. That’s the way it goes with July 1 signings: you swing for the fences, but usually end up walking back to the dugout with the bat in your hands.
For the Bruins and Backes, they each gave it their best shot. Sometimes, it just doesn’t work out.