Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Backes earns big contract, rewards franchise with banner season

Power forward's greatest motivation: guiding Blues back to playoffs

ST. LOUIS -- More often than not, athletes seem to perform well when desperate times calls for desperate measures. A contract year certainly qualifies as under such circumstances.
It seems to bring out the best in most.

But in one of those instances when a team wants to keep the player, prevent that player from hitting the open market and reward such player with a long-term contract, it's only natural for the player to repay that franchise by excelling in the present as well as the future even with the security of a new deal.

Meet David Backes, who headed into the final year of a three-year, $7.5 million contract that would have expired at the end of this season. But the Blues saw a rare combination of size, strength, scoring ability, dedication and leadership skills that would be next to impossible to find again. They didn't want to flirt with the idea of losing Backes, who was drafted by the Blues in the second round of 2003.

Backes would have been a hot commodity had he got to the July 1 free agency period. The Blues didn't want to take any chances. So when they rewarded Backes, 26, with a brand spanking new five-year, $22.5 million extension, the Blues put their faith in Backes' strengths to overshadow any deficiencies.

It was back on Nov. 12 when Backes dotted the X's and O's on the new deal. At the time, Backes was in the midst of what seems like a normal slow start to a season: two goals and four assists in 14 games. Some would call that a slump. It just seems to be the norm for Backes.

But when it was all said and done for 2010-11, Backes tied career-highs in goals (31) and assists (31) while setting a career-high in points with 62. He finished tied for second in the league with a plus-32 and played in all 82 games this season despite a plethora of bumps and bruises while hitting -- cleanly -- everything in sight.

Call it Backes' way of saying thank you to the organization that allowed him to fulfill a dream of playing in the NHL and eventually reward him handsomely.

What impressed the Blues more than the numbers is Backes' willingness to thrive in a team role, not personal glory.

"I'd give it all back to be in a playoff spot," Backes said of his statistics. "I'd take five goals and five assists right now if we could (have been) playing after April 9th. The fact is we're not, so I'll take the personal achievements the way they are.

"I'm satisfied and I have a lot of great teammates to give a lot of credit for setting me up and making great plays around me."

Backes, at 6-foot-3, 225-pounds, anchored the Blues' top unit for much of the season. He did so playing center, which is not his position by trade.

It may not always be flashy, it may not always have a picture-perfect finish to it or make the top 10 list on highlight reels at the end of the night, but one word always seems to pop into coach Davis Payne's mind when he thinks of Backes.

"That's probably the biggest word to describe David's game: the consistency in all areas," Payne said. "He knew that he was a big part of it coming in. When guys came out of the lineup, he knew he was a big part of what stayed in there and how we were going to need to play. He took on that challenge. At times towards the end, the load got heavy for him. There's no question about that, but he stayed with his game, he tried to pull guys along, push guys along, take things over when he had the opportunity.

"His leadership continued to grow (and) the way he handled himself down the stretch was outstanding. The numbers speak for themselves, but most impressed in the fact that he does this against top defenders, he does this against other teams' top offensive players."

Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said it was a no-brainer giving Backes the security of a new contract. He believes Backes is a focal ingredient moving forward.

"We're heading into the areas that we want to get to and David's a huge part of that, not only on the ice but in our community," Armstrong said. "He represents the St. Louis Blues 24/7/365 the way we want to be represented."

Backes, who's been mentioned on more than a number of occasions to be the next captain of the Blues, continues to display the type of character the Blues are looking for both on and off the ice.

He and his wife Kelly lead the way for David's Dogs, the couple's fundraising group for the St. Charles Humane Society, which the Backes' are on the board. Kelly Backes also started up the group Kelly's Kats in December. So not only does Backes have time to better himself on the ice but off it as well.

"It's an exciting time to make that kind of a commitment to someone you trust, someone that you know the team can grow with, someone that you know is going to represent and teach our young players what it means to be a pro and what it means to get to the other side and into the promised land," Armstrong said. "He's born and raised a Blue. He was drafted by us. He's played here, he understands what it means, but more importantly, he understands where we're trying to go to."

Which is precisely why Backes was in a somewhat somber mood as the players were cleaning out their lockers recently. Losing really bothers him.

"The frustration of a lack of team success is what sits most with him," Payne said of Backes. "That's what we want all our guys feeling. Whether a guy felt like he had a good year or not, we're shy of those 10 (playoff) points. We're shy of that opportunity to play (in the postseason).

"We ask guys to identify in their game the areas that they can gain percentage points that add to our team game. He's got a clear picture of where he feels he could get better, how he could contribute more, how he could be sharper, how he can improve his face-offs. Those type of areas contribute to the team's success. This is his focus leaving town for the summer. That's exactly where we want the focus to be."

Backes could have commanded more money on the open market, but as is the type of character that he displays, loyalty means more than greed.

"There's maybe that thought in your mind to chase that almighty penny all over the place, but there's so many things outside of money that are important; not just to myself and my wife, but to have the great town and the people of St. Louis to support," Backes said.

"It's never a fun day to have the year-end meetings while there's 16 teams still playing. Next year, we're going to do plenty to become one of those 16 teams, then the eight, then the four, then hopefully the two and the last one standing. It's a bitter taste in our mouth right now, but we've got to use that as motivation to have good summers and make sure we come back next year ready to rock."

But for the time being, Backes will allow the mind and body some healing time.

"Rest and relaxing," he said. "Hopefully, have my line in the water fishing a lot, but there's plenty of work to be done in the weight room making sure that (next) season gets off to a good start the way it did this year."

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