In the hockey world, July 1 is Free Agent Frenzy Day. Fans, media, players, oh heck, all members of the community countdown the hours until noon when unrestricted free agents can sign with new National Hockey League teams.
In Boston, fans eagerly awaited to see what Bruins general manager Don Sweeney would do to improve his team.
One day earlier, after buying out defenseman Dennis Seidenberg and re-signing defenseman Torey Krug to a five-year contract, Sweeney reiterated to the media in a conference call that he would do everything he can to turn the fortunes of the Bruins around and see that they make a return to the Stanley Cup playoffs in 2017.
It did not take long to learn, only minutes after the clock struck noon, that the GM landed one of the biggest free agents available when he signed St. Louis Blues captain David Backes. The forward’s new contract calls for him to earn $30 million over five years.
Backes, 32, completed his 10th season with the St. Louis Blues in 2015-16, producing 21 goals and 24 assists for 45 points with 83 penalty minutes and a plus-4 rating in 79 games. The 6-foot-3, 221-pound forward helped lead the Blues to a berth in the Western Conference Finals, skating in 20 postseason games and amassing seven goals and seven assists.
Backes has worn a letter in seven of his 10 NHL seasons with the Blues, including the “C” in each of his last five seasons. Backes has led the Blues in hits in eight of the last nine seasons and ranked in the top-20 in the NHL in hits in each of his last nine years, dating back to 2007-08. He was top-5 in the league in hits in 2007-08 and 2009-10, while also setting a career high with 273 hits in 2013-14, third-most in the NHL.
Backes was also a runner-up to Patrice Bergeron for the 2012 Frank J. Selke Trophy, awarded annually to the best defensive forward. He recorded his best statistical season in 2010-11, as he skated in all 82 games and posted 31 goals and 31 assists for a career-high 62 points with a career-best plus-32 rating (second in the NHL behind Zdeno Chara) en route to his first All-Star Game appearance.
In his 10-year NHL career, Backes has skated in 727 games, amassing 206 goals and 254 assists for 460 points with 969 penalty minutes and a 49.7 faceoff win percentage. He ranks sixth on the Blues’ all-time scoring list. The right-shot forward is also a veteran of 49 postseason games, scoring 12 goals and adding 15 assists for 27 points.
Backes has represented the United States in international play several times, including earning a silver medal at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, Canada. Backes has played in 12 combined games at both the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver and the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, compiling four goals and three assists. He has also played for the U.S. at the World Championships in 2007, 2008 and 2009, recording two goals and seven assists. Backes has been selected to represent the U.S. at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.
The Minneapolis, Minnesota native was originally selected by St. Louis in the second round (62nd overall) of the 2003 NHL Entry Draft.
“We went out to identify a primary target in David Backes as a center, right wing candidate,” Sweeney said in a conference call with the media. “He provides depth and balance to our lineup.”
Sweeney commented on the qualities Backes will bring to Boston.
“Well it’s the package,” said the GM. “Obviously, the leadership qualities, they (St. Louis) went for a real deep (playoff) run. He’s hungry to have another opportunity to win. During our conversations, he spoke about knowing our team and how hard they are to play against, respecting our leaders and our club. He’s done his due diligence with a number of players that we have on the horizon. He knows this was a full commitment from the ownership with Cam (Neely), Claude (Julien) involved, players involved. We just went about our business to identify David as a player that our other players want to play with and set examples. And I don’t think you can have enough of those, and strength up the middle of the ice is paramount.”
Backes also spoke to the media and thoroughly believes Boston will be a perfect fit for him on the ice and for his family off it.
“Well, from my time playing against Boston and the history of the team, it’s a blue-collar, hard-nosed, don’t-take-crap-from-anybody type of team, and that’s the way that I feel I’ve built my game in 10 years in the league,” Backes said. “And I think that it should be a seamless fit to fill the few holes or deficiencies that, through the interview process, were identified, and continue to be strengths of mine in all facets of the game – five-on-five, power play, penalty kill. It just seemed like an awesome fit hockey-wise and the more I learn about the New England area and what Boston has to offer for a city from a family living standpoint, the family life seemed to be a match made in heaven as well. And we’ll get to experience that in short order, and all in all, it’s something that we just had to jump at and glad to be a Bruin.”
Backes is looking forward to putting on a black and gold sweater.
“Every time I had a conversation with someone from the organization, that kind of goosebump feeling on your arms and that emotional connection and thought process towards what it would be like to maybe have a different sweater and be able to join what they’re trying to do in Boston really just kept building,” Backes explained. “And then the opportunity presented itself not too long after 11 (am) struck. Once the agent and Don Sweeney figured out the numbers, it was let’s move on with this and sign the deal because it makes so much sense on so many levels.”
Backes also likes the direction in which the team is going.
“I think it’s more of a kind of a re-tooling. With a new GM in the past couple years that with cap issues had to really change the look of the team and now they’re trying to get pieces back that they think will get them over the hump,” he observed. “They barely missed the playoffs last year and if they were able to get into the playoffs, I don’t think anyone would have wanted to play them. That being said, when you can complement and share the load with a guy like (Patrice) Bergeron and (David) Krejci, that’s the way it was sold. It wasn’t, ‘Hey, we need you to come in and do all the heavy-lifting, take the D-zone draws, and change and the other guys get the posh ice.’ Or, ‘Hey, you’re going to be a first-line guy, you’re going to play with skill players, you’re only going to play in the offensive zone to start and these other guys will do all the heavy lifting.’ That wasn’t the way it was sold and potentially blow smoke and try to sell a guy like that. It was honest. It was genuine. Those kinds of conversations like, ‘Hey, we want you to come and be a member of this team that shares the workload with the other guys that work their butts off and work together as a group, we’re going to have success.’ These guys get it. They know what it’s going to take to win. That’s what I want to be a part of and it just sold me on the hockey side.”
Backes said he is open to playing right wing as well as center. He will do whatever it takes to help the Bruins win.
“Absolutely, I’m into winning games, so if Claude thinks that we’re going to win more games with me playing wing then I’m in,” the forward said. “If he thinks that we’re going to win more games with me playing center, I’m in. Whatever he thinks, you know, I’ll do it to the best of my ability. And you know it’s one of those things where it may be schedule dependent, it may be opponent dependent, it may be dependent on a bunch of different variables, but we’re going to have a game plan to win and we’re going to go out there and execute it.”
After reaching the 2016 Western Conference Finals with the Blues, Backes knows a thing or two about helping a team to make a deep run into the playoffs and he plans on helping the Bruins return to the status of Stanley Cup contender.
“I know a bit about the Bruins culture and what that team is going to look like and how good it should be, and from playing those other Eastern Conference teams, I think it’s going to be a very competitive team that should be able to get into the playoffs and be able to make a mark when we’re in the playoffs,” Backes said. “That being said, there is a lot of new experiences that will come with playing in the East, but they’ve got plenty of guys on the team that didn’t play in the East for their whole career or haven’t played for an extended time and we’re not going to take a backseat to anyone. It’s Boston Bruins hockey and I’m excited about being up to it. Let’s get started.”
During the conference call, David Backes gave well-thought out, intelligent, answers. In talking with sports journalists in St. Louis, it did not take long to realize Backes is a respected athlete by everyone with whom he interacts.
Need further convincing?
Friday night, he attended the St. Louis Cardinals baseball game, when he was shown on the video scoreboard, he received a standing ovation from a sellout crowd. That says a lot about the man who is coming to Boston.
Follow ESPN New Hampshire’s NHL Writer, Shawn Hutcheon, on Twitter at @ShawnHutcheon.