Today's piece on David Backes is the ninth in a 10-part series over two weeks breaking down the core Bruins group of players, and where they stand headed into next season after last spring's Stanley Cup playoff run.
It was very clear at the end of Boston's run this postseason that 35-year-old David Backes was at a crossroads.
The Bruins power forward was a healthy scratch in the last three games of the Stanley Cup Final against his former St. Louis Blues team, and was coming off a regular season where he scored a career-low 20 points in 70 games. Backes is now three seasons into his five-year deal with the Bruins and has declined in performance each season while never living up to the hard-nosed 20-goal, 50-point guy that he was during his best seasons with the Blues.
Backes is still a physical presence for the Bruins at 6-foot-3, 221 pounds, and he adopted a role late in the year where he was dropping the gloves with greater regularity to stand up for his teammates. There's still some importance there for a young, undersized group of Bruins forwards that is sometimes short in the size, strength and nastiness department.
But there's also an admission at this point from the Bruins that the contract was a mistake given how much the NHL has sped up in the last few seasons, and how Backes has slowed now in his mid-30's. That will make this coming season an important one for a player who's likely to be a bottom-6 guy for the Bruins - if he's a regular in the lineup at all.
"This offseason is going to be very important for David. He's a proud guy. He's somebody we looked at when we signed him that he would help the core group get to another [Stanley Cup] Final," said Bruins President Cam Neely to NBC Sports Boston in an exclusive 1-on-1 interview. "But what happened was that nobody predicted how fast [the game] got and how quick it got, and which way David was going.
"So this offseason is going to be very important for David. He's been a captain. He's an alternate captain here. He's got a strong voice and he has opinions. Players look up to him in that locker room. He's respected in that locker room. I know that."
Will Backes still be with the team when training camp breaks in October and the Bruins are getting ready for the regular season?
Certainly it would be a coup for the Bruins if they can get out from under his $6 million cap hit, though it's going to be difficult for the contract to be moved given his declining performance. Backes can still play a key leadership role for the Bruins and there's zero question that his voice still carries weight inside the Bruins dressing room.
It was just as apparent, though, that Backes couldn't maintain the skating legs needed in today's NHL when he was playing regularly. Time off allowed him to regain his best skating legs and Backes could have bursts of effectiveness when he jumped back into the lineup. That's going to be a difficult line to walk over the course of an 82-game regular season with roster spots at a premium.
The question now is how effective Backes can be on the ice in his declining years. Can he be a consistent, physical presence while providing the leadership and toughness that Boston still needs?
Or is he going to be a healthy scratch at the end of Boston's roster on most nights, just as he was in some of the most important games of the season?
Those kinds of questions won't be answered until training camp begins and Backes' situation gains more clarity amidst the players competing for roster spots, and considering Boston's salary cap situation with Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo still unsigned.
Key stat: 20 – The number of points for David Backes during 70 games in the regular season. It was the lowest offensive output of his 13-year NHL career, and the seven goals were the second-lowest behind only the lockout-shortened 2013 regular season.
Backes in his own words: "It's a swirl and a whirlwind of emotions that I haven't fully gripped. I don't know that I will in the near future. I don't know if all of the extra layers of my situation helps or hurts. Knowing who our opponent was and not playing the last three games. All of those sorts of things."
The biggest question he faces: Can Backes do any better than last season? Is there a possibility that the Bruins can move Backes' contract after watching other big-money older veterans like Patrick Marleau and Milan Lucic get moved this summer? How difficult is it going to be for the proud Backes to bounce back from being a healthy scratch in the final three games of the Stanley Cup Final? Plenty of big questions staring Backes down this summer.
Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.