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 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." - St. Louis Blues center 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.
Around the Central
Chicago -- They say one player can’t win games for a team, right? Try again. After seeing the Chicago Blackhawks go 5-12 while sparkplug rookie center Jonathan Toews was out of the lineup with a knee sprain sustained Dec. 26, the Hawks proceeded to go 2-0-1 in the first three games after Toews returned -- scoring 15 times in those games, with Toews accounting for two goals and three assists. What Toews' skills and leadership do for the Blackhawks is define the roles of the players around him -- the Hawks clearly get a balanced attack up front when he’s in the lineup and the defense has the confidence to step up into the play and make things happen offensively. Yes, this rookie is that good. ... The Hawks finished a seven-game trip with a 3-2 shootout loss in Vancouver, 7-2 win in Columbus and 6-1 triumph at Nashville for a 3-2-2 record. The seven goals against the Blue Jackets were a season-high. ... Dustin Byfuglien, now a defenseman turned pretty effective power forward because of his immense size, chipped in with two goals to give him 11 on the season in the win at Columbus. ... Patrick Sharp has caught fire once again with Toews back as his center on a line with rookie Patrick Kane, scoring goals in five of his last six games going into this weekend. ... With Brent Seabrook and James Wisniewski getting goals at Columbus and Duncan Keith adding another at Nashville, Chicago’s defensemen now have 35 goals this season, which is just two behind NHL-leading Montreal in that category. ... Oh, yeah, the win against Nashville gives Chicago four wins over division-leading Detroit and four wins against second-place Nashville in their Central Division playoff quest.
Detroit --Three Red Wings scouts were in St. Louis to watch the Los Angeles Kings on Feb. 12, leading rumor-mongers to heat up the speculation that Detroit GM Ken Holland is really, really interested in L.A. defenseman Brad Stuart. But this part of scouting is just due diligence on the part of the Wings’ GM and his staff in case he can find a bargain to make his team stronger going into the playoffs (To me, LA d-man Jaroslav Modry would fit in Detroit’s lineup better and would be much less expensive.) Also, coach Mike Babcock told me earlier this season that he can’t wait to get defense prospect Jan Ericsson in his lineup, so I don’t think there will be any expensive rental trades for Detroit unless it’s up front -- someone like Sergei Fedorov perhaps, since it doesn’t appear like Columbus will bring him back after his contract is finished this season. Panic? Not Holland, who told reporters that phones are beginning to heat up before the Feb. 26 trade deadline and that he expected three or four big trades before the deadline. But he also indicated that most deals would likely be for third- and fourth-line forwards or sixth- or seventh-defensemen -- and that those players would not be better than the ones he already has. Remember, even while his team is in an 0-3-1 skid, top-six forward Dan Cleary is out with a fractured cheekbone, goaltender Dominik Hasek with a hip flexor and defenseman Niklas Kronwall with a shoulder injury -- and all are expected back before the playoffs. ... If Chris Osgood is invited to play in the All-Star Game next season, don’t be surprised if he chooses to pass. Osgood, who is 2-3 since the All-Star Game, lasted less than nine minutes and gave up three goals on five shots in a 4-2 loss at Nashville on Feb. 12. It was Ozzy’s third-straight setback, his longest winless streak since going 0-4-2 in February-March 2004. ... Jimmy Howard, who likely would be the second goalie next season to Osgood if the Wings and Hasek decide to part, stopped 18 of 19 shots in relief of Osgood vs. the Predators. Of late, Howard has been superb while playing for Grand Rapids of the American Hockey League, with two shutouts in December and a streak in which he allowed two or fewer goals in 10 of 13 games played with a 1.72 goals-against average and .939 save percentage. ... With Cleary out six to eight weeks, Tomas Kopecky is seeing more ice time, often playing between Valterri Filppula and Jiri Hudler.
Nashville --Goaltending has been on the upswing in Nashville. Just before the All-Star break, we talked about how Nashville’s goaltending of Chris Mason and Dan Ellis was going to have to stand tall if the Predators were going to make a run at the playoffs. Voila! Following a 4-2 triumph over Detroit, Mason and Ellis had combined for a 13-4-4 record with five shutouts a goals-against average below 2.00 and a save percentage greater than .930. The revelation here is that Mason struggled at the start of the season when he was expected to take the No. 1 job and run with it after Tomas Vokoun was traded to Florida in the offseason. Instead, Ellis was given a great chance to show his skills and he’s responded with a 13-5-2 record. So, it seems that rotating goalies suits Mason, Ellis and the Preds just fine. ... Jason Arnott joined linemates Alexander Radulov and J.P. Dumont at the 20-goal level Feb. 14. It’s the ninth consecutive 20-goal season for the Predators captain and his ninth in 14 NHL seasons. ... Two goals and three assists doesn’t sound like big production, but the consistency of play by center Rich Peverley makes it harder and harder for coach Barry Trotz to find a reason to return him to the minors.
St. Louis --The St. Louis Blues come into the weekend with a 2-1-1 record since defenseman Eric Brewer was named the 19th captain in club history on Feb. 8. Brewer, who has faced a lot of heat on St. Louis talk shows for his uneven play this season, has played with more of an edge since the announcement -- helping the defense limit the opposition to just four goals in regulation in their last three games going into this weekend. ... Jay McClement has just seven goals this season, but he scored his fourth in four games against Colorado Feb. 14 to help the Blues beat the Avalanche 4-1. ... That win gave goaltender Manny Legace a career record of 13-2 against the Avs. ... In case you were wondering, Brad Boyes is the first Blues player to reach the 30-goal mark since Keith Tkachuk had 33 in 2003-04. ... If a team is looking for help on defense and the Blues decide they are sellers before the trade deadline, Barret Jackman, Bryce Salvador, Matt Walker and Jeff Woywitka are all potential unrestricted free agents on July 1.
Columbus --With visa problems finally out of the way, defenseman Dick Tarnstrom finally joined the Columbus Blue Jackets on Feb. 10 in a 3-2 shootout loss to Los Angeles. He assisted on one of two Columbus power-play goals in that game and then scored one of two power-play goals the Jackets had in a 7-2 loss to Chicago three nights later. Tarnstrom’s power-play proficiency was the main reason GM Scott Howson gave up hard-working wing Curtis Glencross to Edmonton for him, figuring that a power-play goal here or there could make the difference in enough games down the stretch to give the Jackets a better chance at making the playoffs for the first time in club history. ... Big games. Big players step up -- even if they are considered defensive players like center Michael Peca. Peca had four assists in his last three games going into a Feb. 15 game against Detroit. ... When are those three-point games just not enough? When you’re the Jackets and you’re 1-4-3 since the All-Star break and trying to climb over too many teams to get into the playoff picture.
The week ahead -- Nashville, Columbus, St. Louis and Chicago all get a crack at head-to-head games this week in Central Division matchups in an attempt to move closer to a playoff spot -- most notably the Blues, who play at Nashville on Feb. 16, at home against Columbus the next night and host Chicago on Feb. 19. ... So far this season, St. Louis only holds the edge over Nashville, 3-2, although the Predators won the last two meetings 5-2 on Jan. 19 and 6-3 two nights later. Brad Boyes had the winning goal for the Blues in each of St. Louis’s first three wins, including a shootout goal Nov. 17. ... Chicago took a 3-2 edge on the Blues with a 6-1 triumph Jan. 16 as former Blues goalie Patrick Lalime stopped 32 shots and rookie Patrick Kane had two goals and an assist. ... After seeing Pascal Leclaire blank the Blues 3-0 in their first two meetings, the Jackets took a 3-2 series lead over St. Louis with a 6-4 triumph Jan. 11 as Nikolai Zherdev scored a pair of goals six minutes apart in the third period.