Wild hope to lock in Backstrom before market opens

Updated: May 20, 2007, 5:42 PM ET
Associated Press

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.


Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press