The St. Louis Blues have a conundrum when it comes to captain and top centre David Backes. They’re in win now mode and they’re a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, but judging by their current cap situation, they may not have the money to re-sign him as he’s set to hit unrestricted free agency this summer. So the Blues are going to have to wrestle with the idea of either keeping one of their core forwards for a playoff run and risk losing him for nothing come July, or trading him mid-way through the season to get something of value for him.
Backes has produced at a solid and consistent offensive clip throughout his entire career. Aside from his first two seasons in the league, and the lockout shortened 2013 season, Backes has managed at least 0.60 points per game. He’s also done so while playing an elite defensive game, as he tends to start a good chunk of his shifts in the defensive zone while facing difficult opposing competition.
A few weeks ago, the Canadiens inked Tomas Plekanec to a two-year extension with a $6 million cap hit and earlier this summer, Ryan Kesler and the Ducks came to terms on a six-year extension with a $6.875 million cap hit. Since the beginning of the lockout shortened 2013 season, Backes in 29th in the NHL among centres in terms of scoring with 152 points in 221 games. His production would put him right on par with Plekanec, who’s scored 153 points over 299 games in that span of time. He’s also producing at a higher level than Ryan Kesler, who hasn’t scored more than 50 points since his 73 point season in 2010-11.
Considering Backes’ solid offensive production and elite defensive game, you have to assume that his next contract will be at least on par, if not higher than what Kelser got with the Ducks. Even if he signs a hometown discount to continue playing in St. Louis, I really doubt he’ll sign for less than the $6 million annually that Plekanec is set to make when his extension kicks in.
Among others, Steve Ott, Troy Brouwer, and Carl Gunnarson are set to hit free agency this summer, which will free up over $9 million in cap room. I’m sure the Blues will be OK with letting Ott and Gunnarson go, as they can be replaced fairly easily with an inexpensive free agent, but Brouwer has been a solid and productive player for them, so they’ll likely be more inclined to try to sign him. Another thing the Blues need to worry about before they fork over a bunch of money to Backes is that Kevin Shattenkirk and Alex Steen are set to become unrestricted free agents at the end of next season, and they have a group of young players like Jaden Schwartz and Jake Allen who aren’t going to on their cheap RFA years forever.
So the question for the Blues isn’t whether they can find the cap space for Backes, it’s whether it’ll actually be worth it to do so. Backes is obviously a really good player and he’s a pretty big reason why the Blues are a good team. That said, he’s going to be 32-years old in May, and it’s reasonable to assume that he doesn’t have many good years left in him. When the Ducks signed Kelser, many were critical of the decision because while he might be worth the $6.875 million over the next couple years, he’s going to be a boat anchor for the last half of the contract. The same will probably be the case with Backes. He’s a key part of a Stanley Cup contender now, but three or four years from now, he might be an albatross that gets in the way of the Blues having the cap space to improve the team.
Another thing to remember is that Backes was a part of the NHPLA Negotiating Committee that was involved with the collective bargaining process between the Players’ Association and the NHL back in 2012. I mean, take that for what’s it’s worth, but I can’t really see a guy who’s heavily involved in the NHLPA going out of his way to sign a team friendly deal when his market value is at the highest it’ll ever be in his career. Obviously he hasn’t said anything of the sort, and I don’t know him personally, it’s just speculation.
So what do the Blues do? They could entertain the idea of trading him at the deadline and acquiring younger, controllable players that can fill in Backes’ spot immediately, but also help them maintain the team’s contender status for years to come. I doubt that’ll happen, though. Trading your captain and best two-way forward isn’t as simple as snapping your fingers and having somebody else fill the void, so I expect Backes will play the rest of the season and playoffs with the Blues, then eventually walk as a free agent. Obviously nothing is set in stone, I just can’t see how the Blues would be able to keep him around when so many other key players will be in need of new deals in the next few years.
Previously in this series: