Backes shakes off slow starts of the past to make impact

News-DemocratNovember 26, 2013 

— With each goal scored by linemate Alexander Steen, St. Louis Blues captain David Backes just nods his head and smiles.

Steen moved one goal away from the NHL lead by scoring two more Monday in a 3-0 win over Minnesota that pushed his season total to 19 in just 23 games.

"He's a guy you hate to play against," Backes said of Steen, whose previous career high was 24 goals in 68 games with the Blues in 2009-10. "He never stops moving and he's got a skill set that is dangerous anywhere in the offensive zone. He's for real."

So is Backes, whose notorious slow starts from past seasons are a distant memory with the Blues ready to open a road trip at Colorado on Wednesday.

Backes has 10 goals -- four more than he scored in 48 games last season -- along with 22 points. He's centering the Blues' top line with Steen and T.J Oshie, shutting down the opposition's best scorers and being his usual physical force all over the ice with 72 hits.

"I don't know if you can pinpoint one thing, but hopefully we can put a rest to all the early-season stories about slow starters," said Backes, whose major change in the offseason was spending more time on the ice and less in the weight room.

That's a formula he adhered to in past years, but the results so far show he may have found a new and better training regimen.

"I maybe shifted the focus a little bit away from just being in the weight room, taking three or four months off the ice completely," said Backes, who trained at his old high school rink in Spring Lake Park, Minn. "In June I was back in the rink skating, even if it was twice a week all on my own. That helps a little bit with being comfortable in small areas, things like that.

"There's a lot of other factors, our team success and some of the guys I'm playing with are doing pretty well and that's helping (my) success as well."

So far, the Blues' No. 1 line could be the No. 1 line in the NHL as well. Steen, Backes and Oshie have combined for a whopping 33 goals and 72 points in just 23 games.

These are not offensive-minded individuals, either. They are among the top two-way forwards in the Western Conference who place defense at or above what they contribute on offense.

All three could wind up playing in the Winter Olympics, Backes and Oshie with Team USA and Steen with Sweden.

The trio helps set the tone for the Blues' defense-first system put into place by coach Ken Hitchcock, the one which has the club flying during a franchise-best 17-3-3 start.

"Whether we're a shutdown line or able to contribute on the offensive side, I think everyone in this room needs to go out there and try everything they have to go out and win their matchup," Backes said. "If we fail, someone else is there to pick us up. That's the recipe when we're really good."

After making a major acquisition last spring with the addition of veteran defensemen Jay Bouwmeester and Jordan Leopold, the Blues' offseason work consisted mainly of adding experienced veterans to shore up specific areas.

Those additions have all paid off.

Center-winger Derek Roy, center Maxim Lapierre and winger Brenden Morrow have all contributed to a roster talent upgrade.

But perhaps most importantly, each has been part of winning clubs elsewhere and has driven the accountability and leadership quotient in the room to a much higher level.

"That's our success," Backes said of the "everyone pulling on the same rope" mentality espoused by Hitchcock. "We've got four lines that are bound and determined to try to win their matchup...not just being content with shutting down the other team but going out there getting on the plus side.

"Making sure you're a positive factor. For us, it's just a focus on trying to get better every day and hopefully we crescendo at the right time. That's at the end of the season and in the playoffs."

Seeing the way owner Tom Stillman and the front office has pushed the Blues' payroll to the NHL salary cap ceiling limit trying to improve the on-ice product has provided more confidence.

"For the guys, it's a great sign that the time is now," Backes said. "There's no more rebuild, that time has come and gone. We do have a great core of guys that's grown together through some tough times.

"Now with ownership getting guys like Bo (Jay Bouwmeester) and (Jordan) Leopold (and) other guys that we have that accentuate some of the other pieces, it's a sign that we're committed. We're all in and it's time to produce."

The 29-year-old Backes has been part of the Blues' nucleus of young talent for some time. But his eyes were opened in February, 2011 when former Blues defenseman and 2006 No. 1 overall pick Erik Johnson was traded to Colorado.

"It was a wake-up call for everyone," Backes said. "The guy was drafted first overall and for him to be traded, you're going 'Well, no one's off the hook here.' Everyone's accountable and we need to make sure that you're helping our team win or you might be saying good-bye the next game."'

There hasn't been many major roster shakeups since, but that move brought two productive players in defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk and winger Chris Stewart.

"That's a sign that they're liking the pieces that are here," Backes said.

Contact reporter Norm Sanders at 239-2454, nsanders@bnd.com or on Twitter @NormSanders

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