The St. Louis Blues have had a long history of crushing playoff defeat in their almost 50-year history, which has most recently been under the watch of the team’s current captain, David Backes (2011/12-present). However with the team just one win shy of reaching their first Western Conference Final since 2001, the Blues’ leader seems to finally be focused on playing the game the right way. Here’s a look into how he’s transformed himself into the playoff captain the team needs to make a true Stanley Cup run.
Looking Back(es): A Brief Playoff History
Though the Blues have shown a ton of heart and resiliency throughout this year’s regualr season & playoff run, that hasn’t been the case in year’s past. When looking back at each postseason series under the Backes‘ reign there is a trend that emerges. Though his first postseason as the team’s captain went almost as well as anyone could’ve hoped, it was still a short lived run that saw the team get swept by the Los Angeles Kings in the Western Conference Semifinals (which was also the last time the team had made it out of the first round). The Kings did go on to win the Cup that season, which helps ease the pain a little, but after winning the Central Division that year, it left fans with a bitter taste in their mouths.
This is where Backes got focused on too much physicality, and let his point production dip, a bad habit for any leader. He’s managed to be a pretty effective player overall on his NHL career, averaging .633 points-per-game (PPG) during the regular season, but until this year he had only managed to muster up a .45 PPG ratio in the playoffs, which is well below the .65 PPG+ ratio needed by primary scorers for their team to be successful in the postseason.
Unfortunately for the captain his below average playoff performances would continue over the next few years, and his poor penalties either late in games, or in the offensive zone, took their toll on the entire team. This caused quite a few long, agonizing summers across the Gateway to the West. Though Backes wasn’t able to even crack the .50 PPG average after his first postseason as the captain, he has regained his scoring touch this year, and has kept his focus on the scoreboard, not the body count.
What Makes this Year Different
Many fans are wondering where this version of their captain has been over the last few years, and what has changed this year to give him the success he’s experienced so far. There’s no short answer for this but here’s a look at the external factors leading to Backes‘ success this postseason (12GP, 5G, 4A, 9P, .75PPG, plus-2).
First off, the captain has a decreased role on the ice. He’s finally settling in to where he should’ve played his whole career, hovering between the second and third lines. This has eased his workload against top competition which has allowed him to stay even keeled, and focused on the game. It has also caused matchups that better suit his style of play, allowing him to make a bigger impact. He is able to keep his cool as he isn’t frustrated with trying to shut down the opposition’s top players most shifts, and is finally getting support from his line mates as well.
Previously Backes was almost always paired with TJ Oshie, who Blues fans all know was abysmal in the playoffs (.30 PPG in the postseason with the Blues). This caused Backes to get more frustrated because along with trying to regularly shut down the foes’ best players, he had to deal with a wildly inconsistent, one-way player which drug him down and ruined his focus at times. This may very well be the biggest cause to his poor penalties & lack of postseason leadership in years’ past. However, it’s still not the biggest reason he’s turned things around in these playoffs.
Depth and Heart
The biggest problem for Backes in the past has been teammate support. He was looked at to be a primary scorer, but without help funneling pucks to the net the Blues captain couldn’t focus on his best asset, net front presence. He had to try and make plays in a large variety of ways, which cost him energy and focus. Now with such great depth on the team experiencing success in the playoffs (13 players are at or above 4P, 8 are at 7P or above), Backes can focus on playing his game and keeping the team in check. This has led to a .75 PPG ratio for the captain this postseason, including two incredibly clutch overtime goals to keep the ship moving in the right direction.
Key additions like Troy Brouwer, Scottie Upshall, and Robby Fabbri have also helped Backes stay focused on the task at hand, no matter the circumstance. Players like these are the life force of the team, and their ‘never say die’ attitude has given the Blues the energy they’ve needed to find that next level and win games. That was a big reason they never advanced under Backes in previous years, as the team would ‘mail in’ games after being frustrated by opponents or referees. They’d stop moving their feet, start playing too chippy, and play into the hands of the opposition making it very easy to beat them. Thankfully that has not been the case this year as the Blues have been able to regularly overcome adversity and now sit just one win shy of the Western Conference Finals. In addition, the leadership core as a whole has really been stepping up this postseason, and has been another big reason the Blues have stayed united to face the task at hand as a true team. When teams play like that it makes them extremely difficult to beat.
This truly has been the team fans have been waiting to see for years, and after the statement they made in Dallas on Saturday afternoon’s game five the team seems primed to move on. As long as Backes maintains his composure and continues to lead the Blues in a positive, scoreboard focused manner they should be able to finish the Stars off, even if it’s not until game seven. One thing is certain, the captain came to play and he’s guiding the Blues to greatness.
Mike has covered the St. Louis Blues and Tampa Bay Lightning in depth for The Hockey Writers since 2013. He is also a contributing writer for KSDK News Channel 5, the St. Louis area NBC affiliate, and has been a credentialed media member of the Blues since 2014. Follow him on Twitter @pep30.