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Hits Keep Coming for David Backes

by Larry Wigge / St. Louis Blues
David Backes has been quite productive lately, especially in the hit department.

David Backes remembers going to a lot of Minnesota Wild games with a buddy whose parents had season tickets. Sure, he watched with wonder the moves by Marian Gaborik, but his eyes would more often wander in another direction.

"I still have that Minnesota Wild sweater in my closet at home, but ..."

Backes wasn’t afraid to name the names that caught his attention.

"I really liked to watch the power forwards ... the guys who did the heavy work around the net and in the corners like Brendan Shanahan or Keith Tkachuk, Jarome Iginla or Mark Messier, Peter Forsberg or Joe Thornton, Bill Guerin or Owen Nolan."

Backes is beginning to catch the attention of a lot of scouts as they attend St. Louis Blues games. Never more, however, than in the last few games when he had nine hits at Dallas on Feb. 9, 10 the next day at home against Minnesota, six more hits, one goal and one assist in a 4-2 victory over Los Angeles on Feb. 12 and then added five more hits along with a goal and an assist in a 4-1 triumph at Colorado on Feb. 14.

Power. Passion. Production. Priceless.

The Blaine, Minn., native, had just three points in 18 games when coach Andy Murray called him into his office in late December to have a heart-to-heart with the 23-year-old former second-round pick (62nd overall) in the 2003 Entry Draft.

Those three above-mentioned power forward superlatives weren’t mentioned. And the “P-word” Murray mentioned also wasn’t playoffs.

"The word Peoria came up," Backes admitted, referring to the Blues’ American Hockey League farm club. "The conversation was pretty much one-sided. It wasn’t something I was expecting. As a player, you’re sometimes blinded, thinking you’re doing OK and just trying to get ready for the next game. Clearly, my world was turned upside-down for a while. But I guess it was something I needed to hear."

"I told him; ‘You’ve got to get back playing that power forward style. That's when you’re most effective. The more physical you are, the more you seem to be into the game and the more chances you create,’ " Murray recalled. "The key is he has to get in the other team’s face. That makes him harder to play against."

In the 20 games since Jan. 2, Backes had six goals and 10 assists. More importantly, the hits keep coming. He’s had four hits six times, five hits four times, six hits once to go along with the nine- and 10-hit performances. More precisely, he had 25 hits in three games and 39 hits in six games going into this weekend.

"So far, I haven’t established myself in scoring points, but Andy said in no-uncertain terms that I could make an impact for the Blues in other ways -- and creating space for myself and my teammates with my hits is one that quite honestly I get a big kick out of," Backes said. "That's part of my game I can control and be successful at, trying to get in deep and making their defense wary of our guys on the forecheck."

When Murray took over as coach of the Blues in December 2006, he often referred to Backes as "a young Keith Tkachuk." For much of last season, David roomed with the Tkachuk family. In the last dozen or so games, he’s played on a line with Tkachuk. It’s not wrong to say that Backes still watches Tkachuk’s every move on and off the ice the way he once did as a fan back in Minnesota.

“So far, I haven’t established myself in scoring points, but Andy said in no-uncertain terms that I could make an impact for the Blues in other ways -- and creating space for myself and my teammates with my hits is one that quite honestly I get a big kick out of." - David Backes

One thing we knew about Backes before he arrived in St. Louis for the 2006-07 season is that he is a quick learner and really, really smart. He had straight A’s from 9th grade through his junior year at Minnesota State at Mankato while working toward a degree in electrical engineering. Not too shabby, eh?

General Manager Larry Pleau remembered how he and Blues Assistant GM and chief scout Jarmo Kekalainen sat down with Backes and told him he needed to fill out physically and add another half step in his skating. The following summer, David borrowed the money from his parents to go over to Finland to attend a skating school that Kekalainen recommended. That kind of commitment is what the Blues expect from this youngster.

Backes’ skating has improved every year since. He left Mankato after his junior season in which he totaled 13 goals and 29 assists in 38 games with 91 penalty minutes. Those may not seem like eye-popping numbers, but in 12 regular-season games at Peoria, he had five goals and five assists and was plus-6. He added another goal and assist in three playoff games and was plus-3. And he had 10 goals and 13 assists in 49 games as a rookie with the Blues last season.

But this isn’t a player measured purely on his statistics. He’s a young leader.

When asked where the hockey came from, Backes just laughed and said it didn’t come from his parents, Steve and Karen Backes.

”No hockey in my background at all. My dad played junior college baseball. I might have been headed there as well, until my friends finished the baseball season one year and went right into hockey ... and I kind of tagged along with them.”

Having seen Backes’ love to mix it up in the traffic areas in the corners and in front of the net, I suggested there wasn’t much physical contact in baseball. To which he said; “But I kind of miss the sunflower seeds in baseball.”

On draft day in 2002, Kekalainen gushed about Backes, saying; “To me, he's a great competitor. Loves to look into the face of an opponent and then beat him. He was clearly one of the major factors with his leadership in Lansing's championship team in the USHL.”

Then, I posed the question: What would David have to do to get straight A’s in the NHL to Murray.

”His development as an NHLer parallels that of Dustin Brown (Los Angeles Kings emerging power forward),” Murray said. “Dustin was always very intense. He made his hits count and now the offense had caught up with the rest of his game. When David hits, he’s in the game and tough to play against. If he keeps that up, the offense should soon follow just like it did with Dustin Brown.”

And then the P-words that stand out will be power, passion and production. Definitely not Peoria.

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