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Wild hope to lock in Backstrom before market opens

MINNEAPOLIS -- Niklas Backstrom came out of nowhere -- or
Finland, to be more accurate -- to upstage veteran Manny Fernandez
and star in net for the Minnesota Wild this season.

Niklas Backstrom

Backstrom

The 29-year-old rookie was perhaps the best bargain in the NHL -- leading the league in goals-against average and save percentage
while making only $750,000. The unflappable Backstrom's performance
put him in line for quite a raise before next season, and the Wild
are hoping to sew up their new No. 1 goaltender before he can
create a bidding war when the market opens for unrestricted free
agents on July 1.

"We told Nik and we told our fans that we'd like to try to
bring him back next year," assistant general manager Tom Lynn said
Friday.

Backstrom will likely command a contract that will pay him more
than $3 million a year, which would put a strain on the team's
salary cap given that Fernandez is due to receive $4.5 million next
season. That would make the 32-year-old Fernandez, who played well
last season before going down with a knee injury, a candidate to be
traded.

Lynn said the Wild could keep both goaltenders and still have
enough money to fill out a team that could go further than this
season, when the Wild were eliminated by Anaheim in the first round
of the playoffs. But fans shouldn't expect the kind of spending
spree that happened last year, when the Wild spent millions on
marquee free agents Kim Johnsson, Mark Parrish and Keith Carney.

This time around, the Wild believe they have the principle
pieces in place, and only need to build around a core that includes
Marian Gaborik, Brian Rolston, Pavol Demitra and, ideally,
Backstrom.

"We want to replicate last season's success, but also build on
it," Lynn said. "We don't want to change the team significantly.
Some of that will come from within and some will come from free
agency."

The Wild also have to see how the temperamental Fernandez would
handle a full season of sharing the job with Backstrom after
starting last season as the No. 1 goaltender.

"We've had him for seven years and six seasons," said Lynn,
who added that Fernandez's experience in a platoon situation with
Dwayne Roloson showed the Wild that he can handle such a situation.
"We've tried to play two goalies just about every year. We know
and he knows that we try to play whichever goalie gives us the best
chance to win."

Last year, Backstrom emerged surprisingly to be the main man. He
was a little-known player from the Finnish Elite League when the
Wild signed him to back up Fernandez, who signed a three-year, $13
million extension last year. Fernandez went down with a knee injury
in January, and never was able to make it back to full strength.

Even if he had come back in time for the playoffs, Backstrom had
already cemented himself as the man, earning the confidence of his
teammates with his soft-spoken demeanor and poise. He went 23-8-6
with a 1.97 goals-against average and a .920 save percentage.

If Backstrom had his druthers, agent Donald Baizley said, he
would return to the team who gave him a chance.

"Nik did enjoy it in Minnesota," Baizley said. "We're seeing
if we can work things out."

Baizley has already had some discussions with the Wild and said
he was planning to meet with team representatives again next week,
but both sides declined to comment more specifically on the
negotiations.

"Last year when he came over, the NHL was a blank slate for
him," Baizley said. "He didn't know much about the teams. Looking
back, he feels fortunate to have landed in Minnesota."

He became just the latest netminder to have considerable success
in Minnesota. Backstrom, Fernandez, Roloson and Josh Harding have
all put up very good numbers for the Wild, and Lynn said he hopes
Backstrom appreciates how well the Wild play in front of their
goaltenders.

"He's got a solid personality and a good work ethic," Lynn
said. "Every goalie that's come to the Minnesota Wild has built a
career here. Manny Fernandez went from a backup to a No. 1, Dwayne
Roloson became an All-Star, Josh Harding had a [1.16] goals-against
average last year. It's one of those teams a quarterback wants to
play for."
As much as Backstrom enjoyed playing in Minnesota, at 29, he has
to think about the big picture. This will be his first big payday,
and if the Wild can't sign him by July 1, goalie-starved teams like
the Florida Panthers and Phoenix Coyotes surely will make a bid.