LAS VEGAS -- The Stanley Cup Playoffs are a crucible that can make or break players.
It appears that the 2012 edition of the most difficult postseason tournament in sports has made David Backes, the St. Louis Blues' captain.
Yes, the Blues were on the wrong end of a four-game sweep by the Los Angeles Kings in the second round, but it appears that the loss was the final lesson in Backes' maturation into a leader and not just a captain.
"We got to stare at what it takes to win a Stanley Cup right in the face," Backes said Tuesday from Media Day for the NHL Awards. "We got to battle that for four games -- and really, the difference as to what was in our locker room and in their locker room as far as players on paper, it really wasn’t that different.
"But what they had in mentality and as far as a buy-in from all their guys -- that is where the difference was. How do we get there? That's probably the million-dollar question, but I think once you see that other level -- and so many guys on our team have seen it now -- we will have way more guys on board and it will come more readily."
Especially now that Backes plans to demand buy-in from his teammates in the all-in manner necessary to hoist that Stanley Cup.
"You know what; we got home ice for the first round this year and that was our goal," he said. "We took care of a good San Jose team in that first round, but we can't be complacent with one round of victories. We have to say, 'we beat the Sharks, we're down to eight teams, we've got a legitimate chance -- let's get better and more hungry rather than less hungry and more complacent.'"
When Backes' words were relayed to Ken Hitchcock, the veteran coach that whipped the Blues to within two points of the Presidents' Trophy after taking the job in November, a broad grin creased Hitchcock's face.
For Hitchcock, the bottom line is winning. He did it with Dallas in 1999 and he reached the Eastern Conference Final with Philadelphia in 2004, losing to eventual Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay in an epic series. For him, each of those teams was anchored by a self-belief forged from the brutal truths being dished out by a dominant captain.
In Philly, it was Keith Primeau, who like Backes was asked to find his way into the position. In Dallas, it was Derian Hatcher, a natural leader who inspired the Stars by both word and deed.
"If you are going to get to the next level, you can't pretend, you can't live on hope-fors and you can't pretend. If your top end is willing to look in the mirror and say the things the things that need to get said, that's what we are looking for -- chemistry," said Hitchcock, who is up for the Jack Adams Award as the NHL's top coach. "David's bluntness is going to help us because he is going to cut to the chase when we are needing that during the season and that is what you want in your captain.
"Keith Primeau did it and it was hard on him the first year. It was hard on him to say the things that needed to be said, but it got us to the next level in Philly -- and that is what Derian did from Day 1 in Dallas. Derian was blunt beyond belief and he would either say it or go out and do it against somebody. That's what you want because there is no pretending. If you are going to get to the next level, your leadership can't pretend and live on hope-fors."
Consider it a lesson learned for Backes.
Most eliminated players can't stand to watch the Stanley Cup Final. The idea of watching other teams compete for the thing you want more than anything is a completely foreign concept for most players. It is just too painful a proposition.
Yet, while Backes did not make watching the Kings' games series appointment viewing, he tuned in on a pretty regular basis.
"I needed to solidify in my mind how much of a team they were and you looked at when they were playing Phoenix and when they were playing Jersey, you could see that they had everyone on board," Backes said. "You could look on the faces of the guys in Phoenix and the guys in Jersey that it wasn't another team where you picked a couple of pieces apart and you had him toast. It was you are going to have to beat all 20 of these guys on the same night in order to have success. It's a tough thing to do."
If Backes has his way, the Blues will be just as tough a proposition next season.