Cash, Concussions & Conscience: Bruins Decision to Waive David Backes was the Right One

The Boston Bruins placed David Backes on waivers Friday for purpose of assignment to Providence

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It was going to happen eventually.

The Bruins placed veteran forward David Backes on waivers Friday with the purpose of assignment to Providence. The only game the 35-year-old played this month was against Winnipeg on Jan. 9. That came because his mom Karen was in attendance.

“It was something we had discussed internally with Donny [Sweeney] and we just felt that there were guys who were becoming healthy with Brett Ritchie in terms of [Karson Kuhlman], Anton Blidh is getting closer,” Bruce Cassidy said. “We’re going to look at younger guys and just felt at the end of the day, you do what’s best for your team. What makes you the best team?”

For much of Backes’ tenure with the Bruins since signing on the dotted line of a five-year, $30 million contract in July 2016, the B’s haven’t deemed him as a player who makes them the best possible team.

Backes started watching games from the press box exactly one year ago this week. In a Jan. 16 match with the Flyers last season, Backes was a healthy scratch for the first time in his career. That night in Philadelphia began a trend that culminated in being scratched for Games 5, 6 and 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.

The numbers haven’t backed up the $6 million cap-hit. His 17 goals and 38 points in 2016-17 were the peak of his offensive production in Boston. In the years that followed, he amassed point totals of 33, 20 and 3. Those three points this season came in 16 games. Backes had no real on-ice role this year.

Saying anything bad about Backes feels wrong. It’s no secret he’s one of the nicest, most genuine players in the NHL. Him and his wife Kelly run Athletes for Animals — an organization dedicated to rescuing animals.

“He meant a lot,” Patrice Bergeron said of Backes just after the news broke. “The impact that he’s had ever since he got here, on and off the ice, his leadership he brought. Obviously him and his wife, his family’s been doing tremendous work in the community, but also like I said in this locker room. He was a big part of the mentality that we’ve built here. I wish him all the best.”

Captain Zdeno Chara shared a similar sentiment to Bergeron.

“David is a very valuable player,” Chara said of Backes, who was an alternate captain. “He brings so much to the team. We all love David. It’s very unfortunate there are hockey decisions made and as a player, you kind of have to go along with them and respect them. But David is obviously very much respected and loved by all of us.”

But the reality is the Bruins made the right call in putting Backes on waivers to go to Providence.

An issue the B’s would’ve most likely run into when acquiring a piece at the Trade Deadline is due to a lack of cap space, their trading partner would have to eat some of their players salary, forcing the Bruins to send over another piece in the deal.

If Backes clears waivers, he saves the Bruins just over $1 million in cap space this season. It doesn’t solve everything, but clearing that gives Boston some extra leeway and might save them from having to give up another top prospect in a deal.

Were Backes to retire, the Bruins wouldn’t have to pay any of the remaining cash on his contract, which concludes after next season.

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Something that Cassidy harped on in his press conference after Friday’s practice was the human side to Backes.

The 35-year-old’s dealt with a number of concussions throughout his 14-year NHL career. Back in November, Backes and Senators forward Scott Sabourin collided for one of the season’s scariest moments. Sabourin lay motionless on the ice while Backes walked away with what many assumed to be another concussion.

It was something that certainly impacted Cassidy’s usage of the power forward.

“That affects your decision as a coach when you put a human being on the ice,” Cassidy said. “We saw a little bit last year when David tried to play a little bit of that role and found himself in two or three scraps and I don’t know if that’s the ideal role with him.”

After Cassidy praised Backes’ ability to want to find a spot in the lineup, the human aspect of the coach took center stage.

“As a coach, and I told this to the players, as a guy you know as a dad, he has two young girls,” Cassidy said. “You always want to be careful you’re pushing guys to play a certain way but now you got a guy, who knows, might be one hit away from having some damage. You have to be very careful of that. I know it’s a business, but that is the human side.

“That was a bit of an issue for me to try to push him in that direction.”

And it wasn’t just the concussion aspect of it that made it a tough call for the coach to slot Backes in the lineup. Despite efforts to become a better skater, he was still at least a step behind anyone he played with.

That’s been a reality the Bruins have faced and now opt to go younger. Cassidy mentioned going in a different direction with guys like Kuhlman and Blidh. There was also mention of Backes losing roster battles with other players.

“We know David doesn’t agree with the situation, but that’s the decision we made for the good of the team,” Cassidy said. “I respect David as a person. As a player, we just felt we had better options and it’s how we’re going to go forward.”

In the long run, Backes might just come to agree with the situation. The Bruins decision to no longer push Backes out onto the ice will help him long-term. Like Cassidy said, No. 42 could be very close to having some serious brain damage due to all the head injuries. This could be a saving grace from sustaining another blow.

But in the short-term, this decision came down to three things: cash, concussions and conscience.

And it was the right call.