David Backes has two years remaining on his contract with the Bruins, but his tenure in Boston is at a crossroads.
General manager Don Sweeney signed Backes to a five-year, $30 million contract in July 2016, hoping he would provide a physical style of play and versatility to the team’s lineup as a third-line center or a right wing on the team’s top two lines.
“Most players would look at it and say, ‘Well, you’ve got [Patrice] Bergeron and [David] Krejci, where am I playing?'” Sweeney told NHL.com’s Amalie Benjamin after Backes joined the Bruins. “David looked at it and said, ‘Boy, I get to play with Bergeron and Krejci, whether I’m playing behind them or with them on the wings.’ He acknowledges like, ‘Man, we’re a really deep team.'”
Backes’s time as a Bruin has not gone according to plan. He has not reached 40 points in any of his three seasons with the team, was limited to only 57 games in the 2017-18 season due to a myriad of health issues, suspensions, and injuries. This past season saw Backes limited to a fourth-line role and made a healthy scratch at times, including the last three games of the Stanley Cup Final. Though the 35-year-old forward played in 15 of the team’s 24 postseason games, he recorded over 10 minutes of ice time only seven times.
Backes’s contract carries $6 million against the team’s salary cap for the next two seasons — the sixth-highest cap hit on the team. According to CapFriendly, the Bruins have about $12 million in cap space to negotiate contracts with restricted free agents Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo, and Danton Heinen. Moving Backes’s contract would give Sweeney wiggle room to sign the three young players and money to utilize in free agency, too. Whether he can or will move Backes is not clear.
“We didn’t get there, at least in our meetings,” Backes said of his future during the Bruins’ break-up day June 14. “I don’t know what that looks like. [I’ll] probably have a better option or answer for you when I have more control over my future, but I’m in flux.”
David Backes on when he’ll get some clarity about his situation in Boston:
“I don’t know what that time schedule looks like. …. Obviously, if I’m going somewhere else — which I hope to not be. This is a hell of group in here.” pic.twitter.com/xSwO5mReFo
— Conor Ryan (@ConorRyan_93) June 14, 2019
At the Bruins’ end-of-season press conference the following Monday, Sweeney kept quiet about Backes’s future, too. Head coach Bruce Cassidy admitted that while Backes played his best hockey this season as part of the fourth line, he always had competition.
“At the end of the day, when [Chris] Wagner, Acciari were all healthy, there was competition for those spots,” Cassidy said. “So sometimes he was in there, sometimes he wasn’t. So, that’s where I see his best contribution to the team. At times he can move up in the lineup and give you some grit, a net-front presence, but in general, that’s where he played his best hockey for us.”
So, what will the Bruins do with Backes moving forward? Here are four options Sweeney may utilize:
Keep Backes on the NHL roster as a fourth-line forward or healthy scratch.
The most simple and most costly option for the Bruins is to keep Backes around and deploy him similarly to the way he was used this past season. Backes is older, slower, and no longer the player who scored at .70 points per game from 2010-15. But he still displays the leadership qualities the Bruins acquired him for, whether he plays in games or observes them from the press box.
This option forces the Bruins into a salary cap crunch again as Sweeney negotiates new contracts with McAvoy, Carlo, and Heinen for this upcoming season and approaches Torey Krug’s next contract for the next.
Once those deals are finalized, the team may not have money available to sign a right wing to play with Krejci or on the third line, whether it’s unrestricted free agent Marcus Johansson or someone else. This would force Sweeney to swap another player in a trade to acquire right wing help or hope an internal candidate emerges as a capable top-six winger next season, much as the team did this year.
Buy out the remainder of Backes’s contract.
The NHL allows teams to buy out the remainder of a player’s contract, ensuring the player is paid for the full length of their deal while freeing up some cap space for a team. The caveat is that a team must retain a portion of the cap hit for double the length of time remaining on the contract.
According to CapFriendly, buying out Backes would put the Bruins on the hook for $5,666,667 for the 2019-20 season; $3,666,667 in 2020-2021; $666,667 in 2021-22; and $666,667 in 2022-23. As The Athletic‘s Fluto Shinzawa noted shortly after the season ended, a buyout would not provide the Bruins with relief when they need it most — right now.
Bruins source says it’s now “unlikely” that David Backes will be bought out.
— John Shannon (@JSportsnet) June 19, 2019
The Bruins carry $1,166,667 against the salary cap for next season after buying out defenseman Dennis Seidenberg in June 2016.
Seek to trade Backes and retain a portion of his salary.
The NHL’s salary cap requires teams to spend at least $60.2 million for the 2019-20 season. Before free agency, seven teams appear to be below the salary cap floor and will need to spend accordingly to hit that lower number before the regular season begins in October.
The Bruins could trade Backes to a team in need of help reaching the cap floor while retaining a portion of his salary through the final two years of his contract to sweeten the pot. If Sweeney takes this route, the Bruins would deal from a place of desperation, and other general managers may smell blood in the water. It’s not uncommon for teams to obtain star prospects in addition to taking on another’s burdensome contract. Sweeney would likely be unwilling to part ways with top prospects Urho Vaakanainen or Jack Studnicka to complete such a deal if they are asked for in return.
Backes’s contract carried a no-movement clause for its first three seasons. That changes to a modified no-trade clause that allows the Bruins to ask him for a list of eight teams he would prefer to be traded to next season. The list extends to 15 teams for the final year of his contract.
The Bruins still carry $1.9 million against the salary cap in retained salary stemming from trading away Matt Beleskey on Feb. 25, 2018.
Demote Backes to the American Hockey League.
The Bruins could not have sent Backes to AHL Providence this season because of that no-movement clause. After that expires, Sweeney could assign him to the minor league affiliate and receive a small amount of cap relief — in this case, it’s $1.075 million, according to The Athletic.