The writing was on the wall for David Backes.
With the NHL trending younger and faster seemingly by the day, it was tough for the 35-year-old to keep up and remain a valuable contributor for the Bruins. So, when he was waived by Boston on Friday, it was a little surprising, but not really unexpected.
Putting a player like Backes, who carries a $6 million cap hit per season, on waivers shows some acknowledgement from Don Sweeney and Co. that they really couldn’t envision a scenario this season or next where Backes again could become an everyday player.
It’s not for Backes’ lack of trying. He was candid about the measures he took to improve his skating this past offseason, and he always was a good soldier as the 13th forward, so as not disrupt the vibe in the dressing room.
But some things were beyond his control, and, ultimately, that torpedoed his chances of sticking with the big club — and the harsh reality is it might also signal the end of his days in the NHL.
So, what’s next for Backes?
He almost certainly will clear waivers Saturday afternoon, unless some team puts in a claim for him. Such a thing happening would be a stunner, though, as a team claiming him on waivers would inherit his contract.
Upon clearing, Backes is supposed to report to the Providence Bruins. He’ll continue making the same amount of money he was in the NHL, so he’s taken care of in that respect. However, things can get a little dicey from there.
Though not the wild, wild west it used to be, the AHL typically is not a great place for a player of Backes’ ilk. It’s clear that skill is not going to get him called up, in which case the next way he could curry favor with the varsity would be to fight in the minors. And for opposing AHL players, particularly younger ones, trying to get their parent club’s attention, scrapping with a vet like Backes could be a good look for them.
But Backes has a long history of concussions. He’s a husband and has two daughters. For the sake of his long-term health, he shouldn’t have to be subjected to essentially morphing into an AHL goon for the twilight of his hockey-playing days. But his tendency always has been to stick up for himself and his teammates, so it’s hard to imagine him routinely backing out of challenges. It’s just not his nature.
Though unlikely, it’s not totally out of the realm of possibility that Backes goes to Providence, gets increased ice time and finds his game a little bit, enough to make him a serviceable NHL player once again. For him, that’s the best possible scenario. But P-Bruins head coach Jay Leach is trying to help develop Boston’s prospects, and having Backes log big minutes isn’t going to be his top priority.
As for the Boston Bruins, they’re in an interesting spot themselves.
Putting Backes on waivers only saves them just north of a million bucks, which still is helpful for a team that might be looking to add pieces via trade over the next month.
Though they have basically no leverage, the Bruins could try to shoehorn Backes into a trade package. They can retain half of his salary to entice a team, but still likely would have to attach picks or prospects. Backes does have a modified no-trade clause, with an eight-team list this season and 15 next.
They also could buy out the contract, but that wouldn’t do much to clear cap space. They would be penalized with a $4 million cap hit in 2020-21, then a $1 million penalty the following campaign.
Another possible scenario is Backes retires. Should he call it quits, which seems like a longshot but by no means is impossible, the remaining money he would be owed is wiped off the books. In making such a decision, Backes would have to decide if he wants to leave money on the table.
As for Backes’ now-vacated roster spot, by sending down both Backes and Brett Ritchie, the Bruins are sending a clear message: They want to see what the kids can do and if there’s an in-house option this season for a right wing on the third or second lines.
Karson Kuhlman was the corresponding call-up from the Ritchie move, and he passed his first test with a two-assist performance in Thursday’s win over the Pittsburgh Penguins. Head coach Bruce Cassidy likes Kuhlman’s game. He’s got a great nose for the puck and is a hard forechecker with a great motor and has a nice shot when he chooses to use it. For the short term, the ideal option is Kuhlman panning out.
Anton Blidh might get a shot as well. He’s on injured reserve in the NHL right now from preseason shoulder surgery, so he would have to go through waivers in order to get sent down. Blidh long has been a physical player that’s shown slight offensive upside in the lower levels, so the Bruins might see what they have in the 24-year-old once more before his current one-year deal expires at the end of the season.
Zach Senyshyn is another candidate. He played well in a limited look with Boston this season before getting injured, and his speed could play well on that third line with Charlie Coyle.
Whatever the case may be, what shouldn’t get lost in all of this is Backes did everything he was asked. He accepted his role no matter what it was, from a first-line winger early in his contract to regularly being healthy scratched this season. He always was accountable and candid with the media, and it’s clear his leadership abilities and career accomplishments commanded a lot of deserved respect in the Bruins’ dressing room.
If this is indeed the end of Backes’ run as an NHL player, he has plenty to be proud of, even if he doesn’t get a storybook ending.