The Minnesota Wild had until June 30 to come to terms with goaltender Niklas Backstrom
before he became available to 29 other teams. But why wait when both parties are ready to strike a deal?
Since the Wild was eliminated by eventual Cup champion Anaheim in the first round of the playoffs, Wild management has made no secret that it wanted Backstrom back. The feeling was mutual. Backstrom wanted to return to the team that helped him realize his NHL dream, and the parties came to terms on a multi-year contract on Thursday afternoon.
"It was not a tough decision," said Backstrom, who was about to board a plane from Toronto to his native Finland on Thursday afternoon. "That's for sure. I like it here, and I wanted to be here. I didn't really think about (the July 1 deadline. I was happy and having fun and I'm going to be on a team with a chance to win. It is a great hockey city and you could see that in the playoffs. It was unbelievable."
Backstrom’s signing answers one very big question regarding the Wild’s still muddled goaltending situation. The remaining question will be whether Manny Fernandez or Josh Harding
will be on the team’s bench when Backstrom is manning the crease.
Backstrom doesn’t have to worry about that right now. That responsibility now belongs to General Manager Doug Risebrough and Assistant General Manager, Tom Lynn.
"Manny's one of our goalies," said Risebrough, who declined to comment on possible trades or details of Backstrom's contract. "My motivation was doing what is right for the team and that is to have good goaltending."
Speculation will continue to swirl about the possibility of Fernandez being traded at some point. That is due mostly in part to Backstrom's signing bringing the Wild close to the salary cap. Risebrough reiterated that the goaltending position currently belongs to both Fernandez and Backstrom, and there is still some "wiggle room" under the cap. He also stressed the importance of his current roster stepping up next season with the experience of a successful season and an appearance in the playoffs.
One player who thrived last season while gaining experience was Josh Harding
, who backed up Backstrom in the absence of Fernandez. The 22-year-old appears ready to move to the NHL full-time after spending three seasons with Houston in the American Hockey League. At this point, Harding may have to exercise patience once again.
"Josh's stats are good, and he's played well. He wants to be in the NHL," said Risebrough. "But he's a young goalie that can last longer. Ultimately, he's a big part of our future and he'll have to be patient."
Initially signed last year out of the Finnish Elite League, Backstrom was brought in to bolster goaltending depth within the organization. He was impressive enough in training camp to earn the backup role to Fernandez. After spending most of the first half of the season patiently waiting for an opportunity to play consistently, Backstrom got his chance.
Fernandez went down with a knee injury at the end of January and missed 25 games. Backstrom stepped in and played 26 of the team’s final 30 regular season games, and all five playoff games. His stellar performance gave Wild general manager little choice, but to make bringing him back offseason priority number one.
Consider these stats, and it's little wonder that the Wild had to work out a deal despite having signed Fernandez to a long-term deal near the end of the 2005-2006 season: a 23-8-6 record, a franchise-record-tying five shutouts, an NHL-leading 1.97 goals against average, a Roger Crozier Saving Grace Award for a .929 save percentage, a William Jennings Trophy for fewest goals allowed by the team, and three or fewer goals in all but three of his 41 appearances.