If there’s one move that Don Sweeney can be fairly and vigorously quaestioned for from the semi-recent past, it’s the signing of David Backes to a costly albatross of a five-year, $30 million contract during the summer of 2016.
It’s not the only second-guess opportunity when it comes to Sweeney running the Bruins, of course, but that’s the same story with every other general NHL manager in the 31 organizations.
It should be noted the B’s general manager has also led the franchise to an impressive run as one of the best teams in the NHL over the last four seasons and has done it while focusing largely on the draft-and-development component.
But there are some well-worn blemishes to be sure.
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There’s the 2015 NHL Draft, obviously, when the Bruins missed on two out of three picks in the first round by taking Jakob Zboril and Zach Senyshyn in a loaded draft class. That decision continues to sting. Or the initial moves later in the summer of 2015 to acquire Matt Beleskey, Jimmy Hayes and Zach Rinaldo in a futile attempt to bring physicality to a Bruins team that had dealt Milan Lucic at the draft.
We’ll give Sweeney a mulligan for that entire first year, though, as he navigated the first season on the job, asserted himself as the final decision-maker on hockey operations decisions and attempted to transition a once-great-but-aging hockey club weighed down by some ill-advised contracts.
As of late, it’s been much more difficult to pinpoint obvious Bruins mistakes as they have developed young star players like Charlie McAvoy and Jake DeBrusk and pushed all the way to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final last season.
But one could make an easy argument the Bruins might have won Game 7 last summer against the St. Louis Blues if they’d utilized that $6 million in cap space for a more effective player than the 35-year-old Backes.
The aging Backes went through his worst NHL season last year with seven goals and 20 points in 70 games while showing consistent difficulties in keeping up with the NHL pace. Then he was in and out of the lineup in the playoffs before serving as a healthy scratch for the final three games of the Cup Final in favor of a player in Karson Kuhlman who's managed just four goals and 11 points in 36 career NHL games.
Clearly the summer of 2016 wasn’t a good one for the NHL free agent market when the Bruins were tossing around their big money.
Backes was a beyond-his-prime bust. Loui Eriksson has been consistently terrible for the Vancouver Canucks. Milan Lucic hasn’t been the same as he was in his best years with the Bruins and has switched teams from Edmonton to Calgary in that time period. Andrew Ladd and Troy Brouwer were respective free agents busts for their new NHL teams as well.
In hindsight, the Bruins would have been better off simply holding off on spending the money that summer, and instead waiting until the right fit came along for them rather than wasting valuable cap space on an aging power forward incapable of posting the hard-hitting 20-goal/50-point seasons that he did in his best years with the Blues.
A more effective top-6 winger than Backes or Kuhlman certainly would have made a bigger impact in the seven-game series against the Blues last postseason, and would have left the Bruins without a massive top-6 winger void over the last few seasons. It’s a roster imperfection that, to this point, still hasn’t been properly addressed by the Bruins front office after a massive swing-and-miss on Backes.
Insult was added to the salary cap injury just a couple of months ago when the Bruins needed to part with their 2020 first round pick, sending it to Anaheim, in order to free themselves of the odious Backes contract for next season. On top of it all, the Bruins were forced to still eat a portion of the Backes deal ($1.5 million) for next year even after coughing up a valuable first round pick in the Backes/Ondrej Kase swap with the Ducks.
The Bruins assumed they would get at least a couple of good seasons from Backes at the beginning of the $30 million deal where he would be a big, strong, versatile top-6 winger — or third line center — who would take weight off the shoulders of guys like Patrice Bergeron.
Instead, they spent premium dollars on a good man who may have been a consummate pro and an excellent leader within the Bruins dressing room, but on the ice was a hockey player already breaking down on the back nine of his NHL career.
The Bruins will still be paying that price for years to come with a 2020 first-round pick they no longer own and nothing to show for the big money they spent hoping Backes would hang onto his effectiveness in his mid-30s.
Sweeney and the B’s will probably know better the next time they are tempted with the same kind of quick-fix solution to their needs because, after all, hindsight is 20/20.