Who's No. 1?
Last season, Niklas Backstrom split playing time with Manny Fernandez on roughly an equal basis, while young Josh Harding was extremely impressive in seven starts with the team. This season, the starting job belongs to Backstrom.
A year ago at this time, only fans of Finland’s SM-Liiga had an inkling of how good Backstrom could be. The former HIFK Helsinki and Kärpät Oulu goaltender was signed by the Wild as a free agent -- and often had his name confused with the Washington Capitals’ top prospect, Nicklas Backstrom (who spells his first name with a c, hails from Sweden and is a forward).
Now, everyone knows who the Finnish goalie is, after he posted a stellar 1.97 goals-against average, .929 save percentage and five shutouts during the regular season and allowed just 11 goals in the five-game playoff loss to Anaheim. He will turn 30 years of age in February, but goalies tend to mature – and decline – significantly later than position players. While some have wondered if he was a one-year wonder, there’s every reason to believe he will continue to provide the same sort of steady play he’s been churning out for the last six seasons. The only difference is that this will be his second season on the big stage and the first that he has the lead role all to himself.
The emergence of Backstrom, the promise of young Josh Harding and the free agent signing of 27-year-old Nolan Schaefer made longtime Wild mainstay Manny Fernandez expendable during the off-season.
Harding, 22, was the Wild’s second-round pick (38th overall) in the 2002 Entry Draft. After establishing himself as one of the top goaltenders in the AHL and playing 10 games with the big club over the last two seasons, the 22-year-old Harding appears ready to stake a full-time roster spot in the NHL.
Last season, Harding posted a strong .920 save percentage and 2.48 goals against for the AHL’s Houston Aeros. But it was his time with the Wild, in which he flashed a quick glove and allowed a mere 1.18 goals per game and posted a shutout in seven appearances, that convinced Minnesota management that Harding was ready for a shot at the big time.
If Harding falters or gets injured, the organization can also plug free agent signing Nolan Schaefer into the backup goaltender spot. Caught in a numbers game in a deep San Jose Sharks goaltending pipeline, Schaefer has been a more-than-serviceable AHL starter and also played well in seven games with the Sharks in 2005-06, winning five of seven appearances and posting a 1.87 goals against average with a shutout.
In the Wings
Miroslav Kopriva -- Wild drafted the big (6-foot-4, 215 pound) Czech goaltender in the sixth round (187th overall) of the 2003 Entry Draft. … A product of the famous HC Kladno development system, the keeper appeared in 23 games in the Czech Extraliga before coming to North America. ... Has played at three minor league levels the past two seasons, including 13 games with the Houston Aeros (3-6-1 record, 3.72 GAA, .899 save percentage). … Slated to compete for AHL job with Houston or ECHL role with the Texas Wildcatters in 2007-08.
Anton Khudobin -- Attending training camp with the Wild and slated to play in the AHL or ECHL in 2007-08. …Wild drafted the small (5-foot-10) keeper in the seventh round (206th overall) of the 2004 Entry Draft. … Born in Kazakhstan, but plays internationally for Russia. ... Played in the WHL for the Saskatoon Blades in 2005-06 (44 GP, 2.90 GAA, .917 save percentage) and for Team Russia at the 2006 World Junior Championships (5 GP, 2.20 GAA, .930 save percentage)….Played in the Russian Super League in 2006-07, serving as the backup goaltender for league champion Metallurg Magnitogorsk (16 GP, 2.72 GAA). …Has scored a goal in international competition. …Has a reputation for supreme self-confidence, bordering on cockiness. … Still has to improve his consistency, but is known as a hard worker with a desire to compete.
Niko Hovinen -- Wild drafted the huge (6-foot-7) Finnish goalie in the 2006 Entry Draft. … Butterfly stylist who still needs some work with his mechanics and puckhandling. ... Is not close to being NHL-ready. … Spent most of last season with Jokerit Helsinki’s top junior club (27 GP, 2.71 goals against average, .917 save percentage) and the Finnish Under-20 team (6 GP, 3.28 GAA, .896 save percentage). …Also made his SM-Liiga (Finnish Elite League) debut with Jokerit, stopping 23 of 27 shots.