Players come and go in professional sports, to be sure, and never more so than these days that are characterized by their sheer number of escape routes. There are salary cap casualties. There is the freedom of movement that allows the very best athletes to play wherever they want and, in some cases, even when they want. There is the combustible marriage of well-timed but outlying "contract years" and, on a playing field that is occasionally level in spirit only, teams with their perceived needs to fill at outlandish face-spiting prices.
There are more ways to be sucked more quickly out of a revolving door than ever, as teams and athletes willing to swing for the fences, offer, it seems, slimmer margins to stay.
In the midst of all this shuffling -- athletes shuffling their feet and looking over the fence to greener pastures, organizations shuffling the decks of their rosters for reasons ranging from necessity to whimsy -- there are also contract signings that are worth taking an extra beat to enjoy.
There is a grace note to the Wild signing of Niklas Backstrom
, an astute, engaging, thoughtful, level-headed and wickedly competitive adult who does not take for granted the fact he plays a kid's game for a very good living. Backstrom, who could have become a free agent on July 1, simply liked the fit.
"I think the biggest thing for me is I'm really happy that I have a chance to stay with this great organization for some more years," Backstrom said from Vancouver, where he signed a four-year contract. "For me it's a really great place to be."
You usually get better results out of yourself when you're happy and somewhere you really want to be. - Backstrom
Since arriving in Minnesota as a free agent in 2006, the Helsinki, Finland, native has played 150 games, recording a .924 save percentage, 2.19 goals against average and 84 wins as of March 2, 2009. He has also taken every opportunity to praise the State of Hockey's fans, crediting them both as part of why he believes the Wild should play so hard every night and why he wanted to sign a contract to do exactly that with the team that signed him as a "Who's that?" goaltender out of Karpat.
"[My agent] knows how I feel about hockey and how I feel about being in Minnesota," Backstrom said. "He knows that the biggest thing for me is to play where I can improve, get better and have a chance to win. He knows how big it is [for me] to play in front of those great fans. You travel around the league and it always feels really great to come back home and play at the Xcel Energy Center. We have a sold out crowd every night and the fans are unbelievable."
At 31, Backstrom's voice has more often as 2008-09 has progressed become one of reasoned analysis from a player with 51 starts this season and, often, the best seat in the house for a team that aspires to play as honest a brand of hockey as possible. Backstrom has responded, and he has been especially reliable in the all-important second half of seasons. In his 66 starts after the All-Star break, he is 40-10-11 with a 2.04 goals and seven shutouts. As a matter of recognition, The Hockey News also ranked him No. 2 among the league's goaltenders.
"The first year is just trying to get comfortable," said Assistant General Manager/Hockey Operations Tom Lynn. "After that, he's become more comfortable each year. Now he's going to be in the top half in terms of tenure on the team. Also, the reporters are going to him more. And now that he's Nik, ranked No. 2 by The Hockey News ... reporters are going to him for comment."
Backstrom has also sharpened the razor on his barbs in the dressing room. Sitting next to Josh Harding
and near the chattery maelstrom of Derek Boogaard and Cal Clutterbuck
, Backstrom is more likely than ever to catch up to the puck.
"Maybe there's a joke in the locker room and I have an answer in Finnish or Swedish, and it took 15 minutes to get into English, so, usually that joke is over then," he said. A recent newspaper report had him chirping Boogaard in the room for an ill-timed giveaway during a game.
Backstrom's is a story in progress, but even the most cynical sports fan has to see that the news of a signing that lands this heavily with the thud of staggering numbers is merely interrupting what appears to be a pleasant harmony.
"I think he's become part of the spirit of the Wild that will live with us long after his career is over," said Lynn, "because of the way he carries himself."
Moving forward for Backstrom is now the key, as he can settle back into his crease and focus on the next game. Before games, he will very likely continue to zone out on his pregame jog around arenas across North America, continue to try to improve every night and do everything he can to help the Wild reach the playoffs down the stretch and to make an impact when he arrrives.
"You can't be too happy about what's happened in the past," Backstrom said. "You need to be hungry for some more. You want to improve. I want to be better every time I go to the rink."
Backstrom feels the best place for that is in Minnesota.