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NHL suspends Backes for three games for Tuesday hit

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NHL suspends Backes for three games for Tuesday hit

Given that the hit was late and there was an injury, the expectation was that David Backes might get a little piece of supplementary discipline for his hit on Frans Nielsen in Tuesday night’s win over the Detroit Red Wings. 

The 33-year-old Backes got a lot more than  he probably bargained for as the NHL Player Safety Department announced that the B’s power forward was handed a three-game suspension for an interference hit on Nielsen. The hit came in the first period as Nielsen attempted to clear the puck from the Detroit zone while backed up against the side boards. Backes came in for the hit late, well after Nielsen had released the puck that was intercepted by David Pastrnak, and threw his shoulder into the Red Wings forward as he skated on past him. 

Nielsen immediately went down to the ice in a heap and exited the game for good in the first period, and Backes was quickly whistled for a roughing call as a result of the injury. While the head contact wasn’t really predatory in nature, Backes lost much of the benefit of the doubt with the Player Safety Department based on the extreme lateness of the hit. 

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“In addition to the lateness of the check, what elevates this hit to merit supplemental discipline is the significant head contact that occurs and the force with which it is delivered,” said NHL Vice President of Player Safety and Hockey Operations Damian Echevarrieta on the video explaining the suspension. “While we acknowledge Backes’ attempt to contort his body in a way that might minimize the force of the hit, what results is a hit with substantial and forceful contact to Nielsen’s head.”

The three-game suspension for Backes would certainly seem excessive for an exceedingly honest, veteran player like him that has never been fined or suspended prior in his 848-game NHL career, but the league isn’t fooling around when it comes to unnecessary hits to the head. The targeting of the head plus the upper body injury to Nielsen made three games a consensus punishment that would have been even more had Backes been a repeat offender. 

This humble hockey writer’s opinion: Backes definitely hit Nielsen late and likely caused a head injury with the contact on the hit, but it didn’t appear to me that the head was the main point of contact. Instead it looked like Backes barely grazed Nielsen’s chin with a shoulder check that was landed at the Red Wings player’s chest, and perhaps rode up as he was skating past him. Three games felt excessive for Backes in his first time facing supplemental discipline during a physical, clean 13-year NHL career, and it doesn’t really seem to give much of a benefit of the doubt to a former All-Star player and longtime Blues captain.

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But the bottom line is that the criteria for clean/dirty hits changes once they arrive as late as Backes did on Nielsen on Tuesday night, and it was the unnecessary tardiness of the hard check that began setting everything else in motion for his three-game suspension. It’s expected that Tommy Wingels will step in to play third-line center while Backes goes out of the lineup, and it will give him a chance to play a little center for the Bruins down the stretch. 

Under the terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement and, based on his average annual salary, Backes will forfeit $96,774.18 while sitting out the next three games. The money goes to the Players’ Emergency Assistance Fund.

Haggerty: With Jaroslav Halak in place, dealing Tuukka Rask shouldn't be out of the question

Haggerty: With Jaroslav Halak in place, dealing Tuukka Rask shouldn't be out of the question

There are a couple of inalienable facts about next year’s goaltending situation with the Boston Bruins.

The first is that the B’s have most definitely upgraded in that area with 33-year-old Jaroslav Halak as the backup to Tuukka Rask. Halak is a flat-out better goalie than Anton Khudobin, and should be a little more consistent than the Russian backup, who was admittedly excellent last season while racking up a 16-6-7 record as Tuukka Rask’s understudy.

Halak, on the other hand, has won less than 18 games in a season only twice in his 10 full seasons at the NHL level, and has been a starter with the Canadiens, Blues, Capitals and Islanders with a career .916 save percentage over his NHL career. In case anybody hadn’t noticed that’s also been Tuukka Rask’s save percentage over the last three seasons for the Bruins.

Which brings us to inalienable goaltending fact No. 2: Halak is going to push Rask like he hasn’t been challenged since truly taking over as the top goalie in Boston.

The last truly competitive situation with Rask between the B’s pipes was in 2011-12 in Tim Thomas’ last season with the Bruins when the Finnish goaltender was backing up a reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner. Rask had temporarily taken Thomas’ job away from him two years prior during the 2009-10 season when he was a rookie goalie, and that sparked the best season of Thomas’ NHL career where he led the Black and Gold to a Stanley Cup victory.

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Since then Rask has had “just another guys” like Chad Johnson, Niklas Svedberg, Jonas Gustavsson and Anton Khudobin backing him up, and none of those backups had the kind of juice to truly take Rask’s job away from him. The best Khudobin could do was start four straight games for the Bruins back in November of last season, and that turned out to be one of the turning points in a 112-point campaign where Rask was significantly motivated from that point onward.

Halak could legitimately get on a hot streak in the regular season and force the Bruins coaching staff to sit Rask for weeks, or even a month, at a time, and that’s something no backup has ever been able to do behind Boston’s Franchise Finn. That should be a good thing and that is something the B’s are already counting on to happen for next season.

“We’ve talked about internal competition. Maybe it puts Tuukka in a better mindset. There were nights when Tuukka [played] back-to-backs. That’s a lot of stress on the goaltender knowing… I think two years ago we didn’t have a win by our backup at Christmas time,” said Don Sweeney, on July 1 after signing Halak to a two-year contract. “I’m not sure you guys wrote about it, but I did, and I lost sleep about it.

“I think we have two guys that have carried the ball for their teams, [and] that will push each other, that will complement each other, and we feel good that now going in every night. That is an area we aren’t going to be concerned about, hopefully. Obviously, it’s [about] the performance now.”

Now here’s the fork in the road where the inalienable Bruins goaltending facts and some good, old-fashioned speculation go their separate ways.

It doesn’t mean that it’s going to happen, but the addition of Halak for multiple years also opens up the possibility of trading away Rask if the right deal comes across Sweeney’s desk. The $2.75 million per season that the Bruins are paying Halak is the going rate for a top-of-the-line goalie, but it now also means the B’s are paying just under $10 million per season over the next two years for their goaltending tandem. That’s a whopping 12.5 percent of the $79.5 million in salary cap space, which is much less than either of the teams in this spring’s Stanley Cup Final (Vegas paid $6.4 million for their goalies and Washington paid $7.6 million for the Braden Holtby/Philipp Grubauer combo) shelled out for their goaltending.

In fact, only Montreal is spending more money on goaltending than the Bruins this season thanks to the awful Carey Price contract, and – along with the Bruins -- only the Panthers, Canadiens and Avalanche are paying north of $9 million in cap space for their goalies next season. For a Bruins team that was just barely in the NHL’s top-10 in save percentage and where the goaltending wasn’t really a demonstrable strength in the playoffs, that feels like a lot.  

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Rask has a limited trade clause for this upcoming season where he can be traded to eight NHL teams, and that “can be traded to” list gets bumped up to 15 teams in the following season. The Bruins did everything possible last season to make sure that Rask was mentally and physically rested with the 54 appearances, which was right around the targeted 55-60 games the Bruins had him penciled in for at the start of last season.

But even after all that rest and being given the high maintenance treatment, Rask still responded with a shaky postseason that was the worst statistically of his career. The 2.88 goals against average and .903 save percentage were the worst playoff marks of his NHL career, and Rask was an absolute disaster in their Game 7 showdown with the Maple Leafs. If the Bruins hadn’t completely shut down Toronto in the first half of the third period where they didn’t allow a shot on net (and didn’t allow Rask to even be a factor in the balance of that game), they probably wouldn’t have even advanced beyond the first round prior to their second round smack-down at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Rask was better in the second round vs. Tampa and added to his career highlight reel when he angrily fired a broken skate blade at the boards, but there are still some of the very same, nagging questions about Boston’s top goalie when it comes to big games.   

So why not start to explore what Rask could yield in a hockey trade, and even pull the trigger if the price is right given that Halak is there as a proven starting goaltender? There has been plenty of talk about Torey Krug being on the move if the right trade comes up to fit Boston’s needs, and there’s no reason why Boston’s All-Star, $7 million a year goaltender shouldn’t be part of that roster improvement conversation as well.

Nobody is saying to ship Rask simply for the sake of doing it, and clearly the Bruins would need to find themselves a young goalie they could groom as the eventual No. 1 guy to go along with the older, declining Halak. But the signing of Halak officially opened the door for the Bruins to at least toy with the idea of moving Rask in a good hockey trade to a team desperate for goaltending help (Carolina, the Islanders and the Flyers immediately come to mind), and that might not be such a bad thing for the Black and Gold.  

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