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Everybody loves David Backes

by Larry Wigge
Back on July 1, the feelings between the St. Louis Blues and Vancouver Canucks were a bit frayed.

It was then that the Canucks signed young-but-unproven power forward David Backes to a three-year, $7.5 million contract -- or a raise from $850,000 to $2.5 million per season after the 6-foot-3, 226-pounder from Minneapolis put up just 13 goals and 31 points.

The Blues felt the Canucks had bumped up what they were going to offer their unrestricted free agent and were mad as hell and weren't going to take it. They quickly matched the offer sheet to Backes and then fired off an offer sheet of their own for Vancouver's Steve Bernier for one year and $2.5 million -- one the Canucks matched.

It's funny how things turn out. Backes went from 13 goals to 31 goals and 54 points, second on the Blues in each category, while Bernier finished with 15 goals and 32 points.

Any hard feelings can be resolved on the ice, beginning Wednesday when Backes and the Blues begin their playoff series against Bernier and the Canucks?

For the Blues, you can talk about the balance of economics -- $850,000 vs. $2.5 million and 13 goals vs. 31 goals. But in his third full NHL season, Backes, at 24, grew into a more versatile power forward -- going from a team-high 240 hits off the wing to a big body who moved to center and quickly became a triple threat ... with goals, assists and hits.

As twisted as it may sound, the irony once again started with Vancouver on Jan. 9, 2009, when the Blues, already short up the middle, were hit with an injury to versatile Yan Stastny. Backes started to take faceoffs for Stastny. After Jan. 11, Backes was a full-time center.

You can talk about the Jan. 19 matinee in Boston, when Backes scored with :00.8 left in regulation -- a game the Blues ultimately won in a shootout against the Eastern Conference champion Bruins. You can single out the energy youngsters T.J. Oshie, Patrik Berglund and David Perron brought to a team that went from No. 15 and last in the Western Conference as late as Feb. 18 to finish sixth overall with a 19-6-3 record in its last 28 games. But you could also single out the move of Backes to center that night in Vancouver as one of those moves that now looks like genius.

You can spin the numbers -- 19 goals and 16 assists in the final 43 games after 12 goals and 7 assists in the first 39 games. Bottom line: It all started with 1 goal and 1 assist while winning 9 of 11 faceoffs in Vancouver on Jan. 9.

"I had never played center before. All I know is, I just went out there hoping I could survive it and not get absolutely embarrassed ... and trying not to embarrass the team," Backes laughed.

"It was out of necessity that we made the switch. We were out of centers," coach Andy Murray explained. "We're always looking for a big guy in the middle, someone who is hard to face both offensively and defensively. Lucky for us, that's exactly what David gave us. As time went on, he's become more comfortable in the position.

"I didn't know he was such a good playmaker. What he's given us is a triple threat down low in the corners and in front of the net -- a big body who can pass, score goals and be a presence down low."

"He's big and strong and has soft hands and great instincts," said Brad Boyes, the Blues' goal-scoring leader with 33 who has played on a line with Backes and Andy McDonald down the stretch.

It shouldn't come as a surprise that Backes would be smart enough to make this work. After all, he had straight A's all the way from ninth grade through his junior year at Minnesota State Mankato. And he wasn't taking cream-puff courses either -- he was majoring in mechanical engineering.

Backes recalls that day last July when he signed the offer sheet with Vancouver.

"My agent said, 'Don't worry, it's just business. St. Louis loves you. They'll match and you'll be where you want to be with the Blues,'" Backes said, recalling a conversation he had on one of his first days in Vancouver while on his honeymoon with his bride, Kelly.
"I remember on draft day in Nashville in 2003 when David Backes told me he wanted to be a power forward like Keith Tkachuk. This season, he's grown into a power forward who we feel is just beginning to reach his potential." -- Larry Pleau
Kelly has been a lucky charm for David on more than one occasion.

Said David, "She likes to take credit for my getting called up to St. Louis for the first time, too ... on the night I proposed to her. It's funny how you get someone special in your life and things start to click for you. Kelly's been a great support system for me."

Maturity in his life, security in his career, confidence in his skills at the NHL level. That's the form line on David Backes. And the rest of the NHL didn't start taking notice when he scored four goals -- his first NHL hat trick -- in a 5-4 victory at Detroit on April 2.

"When I look at David Backes I see kind of a mirror of my career," Los Angeles captain Dustin Brown said. "You try to make an impact any way you can. We both started out by trying to impact a game with our size and our hits. In the process, you open up ice for yourself and your teammates.

"Like with me, you soon gain the confidence to do more things with your skills -- and David has obviously begun using his instincts at center to make plays and score more goals. You can see he's worked really hard to improve himself."

Until he heard the Blues matched Vancouver's offer sheet, his honeymoon was a little less happy for the 62nd selection in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft. And no, Kelly, didn't tell him he would be great at center. But ...

"I really feel comfortable there now," Backes said. "There's less stopping and starting than on the wing. More action. And it's funny, but I find it easier to get my big body to the front of the net now.

"When I came into this season, I was hoping for 20-20. Once I got No. 20, I just got greedy for more ... and more."

And how about facing Vancouver in the first round of the playoffs?

"I'd like to think Vancouver feels good to think that their decision to spend a lot of money on me has turned out OK," he said.

And ...

"I'd I hope St. Louis feels good that they matched the offer sheet."

"I remember on draft day in Nashville in 2003 when David Backes told me he wanted to be a power forward like Keith Tkachuk," Blues GM Larry Pleau said. "This season, he's grown into a power forward who we feel is just beginning to reach his potential."

Those dollars the Blues spent last summer make a lot of sense right now.

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