BOSTON - For David Backes, this past summer was anything but a vacation.
Despite being part of the Bruins' lengthy run to the Stanley Cup Final, the veteran winger was not interested in using his abbreviated three-month break for any sort of relaxation, instead electing to limit his "serenity time" at his Wisconsin ranch in favor of long days at the gym and the rink.
"How the season ended," explained Backes, "it kind of lit a fire under me for the summer and I think I've put the work in and I feel better on the ice than I have in a long, long time."
Boston's Game 7 loss to the St. Louis Blues hit Backes, perhaps, as hard as anyone, as he watched the series' final three games as a healthy scratch. To see his former team - which he captained for five years - raise the Cup added to the despair.
"Not winning the Cup in Game 7 certainly, but not playing the last three games…all those things kind of came together and allowed me to really put time in," said Backes. "I'm feeling the benefits of that and I want to continue to keep that trajectory the way that it's going and have a little more life and more impact."
Backes' hard work appears to be paying off, with the winger so far putting forth one of the better preseasons among Bruins forwards. Through three exhibition games, Backes has compiled a goal and two assists, which is tied with Oskar Steen for the team lead during the preseason.
"Probably my first year [in the NHL] felt a little like this, but I feel like I'm back to moving around and making plays and creating and engaging in the game," said Backes, who is entering his 14th NHL season. "There's no excuse for years two and three [with the Bruins] - I don't know if I was dropping off or disengaged, but I'm back to that sort of level needed in order to earn my spot. A little sand in the face at the end of last year certainly fed that a little bit, and maybe rightfully so."
Video: David Backes chats with Media
For the first time in a decade, Backes' spot in the lineup was not guaranteed during the second half of the 2018-19 campaign. After playing 70 games (20 points) in the regular season, the winger suited up for just 15 of Boston's 24 playoff contests, notching five points (two goals, three assists) while playing mostly with David Krejci and Jake DeBrusk.
With his role changing, Backes was prepared to take a different approach to the offseason. But it was altered even further thanks to what the Minnesota native described as some "divine intervention."
While skating at his old high school rink in Blaine, Minnesota, Backes was asked by a friend to visit with a group of young figure skaters that was practicing on an adjacent rink. Backes obliged and ended up jumping on the sheet to take part in some drills. It did not go well.
"Twelve-year-old girls, I'm jumping in the drill with them and I couldn't do the drill," said Backes. "It was maybe the most humbled I've ever been in my life. I went home and I said, 'this is divine intervention.' I called that skating coach and I said, 'I need you to help me.' And she helped me. It was painful at times, I'm not going to lie, but it's translated into what I needed to have."
Backes ended up skating three or four times a week with figure skating coach Katie McDonough, while also continuing with his traditional hockey-specific skates - sometimes twice a day - as well as a lifting program prescribed by the Bruins' sports performance staff.
"It was a rude awakening Day 1…and then Night 1 and Day 2 of how sore I was when I was back to using muscles that I had either neglected or was stiffened up," said Backes, who hadn't used a skating coach since his college days at Minnesota State-Mankato. "I think some of that credit goes to my wife for taking more brunt of the at home time than she already does, which is a very thankless job."
Given the ever-changing world that is the National Hockey League, Backes realized that he needed to hone in on his skating, an area of his game that he acknowledged overlooking in recent years.
"I think I really needed it, being intentional with my skating, which I took for granted and kind of just thought that it was all gonna happen or that I've done this for so long it's all gonna happen," said Backes. "It was just seemingly meant to be. I spent a lot of time on the ice with her, didn't touch many pucks because of it. But I feel that my skating has certainly benefited, and [I owe] a whole lot to her."
Video: NJD@BOS: Backes lifts sweet backhander into the net
With Backes also showing a concerted effort to be more aggressive offensively, his performance in the Bruins' 2-0 victory over the New Jersey Devils on Wednesday night did not go unnoticed by coach Bruce Cassidy. Backes, who landed a game-high five shots on goal, showed some strong chemistry with linemates Par Lindholm and Anders Bjork.
Backes converted a Lindholm feed by ripping home a nifty backhanded snipe from the slot to extend Boston's lead to 2-0 just over a minute into the third period. He also delivered pinpoint passes to Lindholm and Bjork later in the final frame, both of which led to breakaway chances that rang off the post.
"I thought he was good, he was banging, he was physical, got to the net, created some loose puck situations with a good forecheck, so he had his legs," said Cassidy. "Good for David. He's done a nice job here in camp so far."
Despite the praise from his coach, Backes is not prepared to get comfortable, with the start of the regular season still a week away.
"I think, personally, I've been satisfied so far," said Backes. "That being said, it's not over. Take [Wednesday night] for what it's worth. We're back to work tomorrow and continue to work my butt off and that's not going to end for the rest of my career as long as that lasts."