<
>

Amid uncertainty, Backstrom, Fernandez accept award

It had to be a bit of an odd situation for Minnesota Wild
assistant general manager Tom Lynn on Saturday.

Niklas Backstrom

Backstrom

Manny Fernandez

Fernandez

He went to Ottawa to attend an award ceremony for goaltenders
Niklas Backstrom and Manny Fernandez, who received the prestigious
William Jennings Trophy for the fewest goals allowed in the regular
season.

Lynn was elated to be there after such a stellar season from his
two main netminders, saying the award was the realization of
Minnesota's quest to become the best defensive team in the league.

"Winning an award like this might be a once-in-a-lifetime
thing, so we're all going to enjoy it," Lynn said.

But he also knows that the future for both in Minnesota is still
up in the air. After leading the league in save percentage and
rescuing the Wild when Fernandez went down with a knee injury,
Backstrom will become an unrestricted free agent if the Wild can't
sign him before July 1.

Fernandez says he expects to be traded if and when the Wild
re-sign Backstrom for big money.

"It's really no different than most years," Lynn said, trying
to downplay the situation. "There's always some uncertainty with
players this time of year. We're really proud of the Jennings
trophy and we've always been really proud of the goaltending
heritage we've had here for a long time."

The Wild have always prided themselves on defense and good
goaltending, but this year they reached the mountain top. Fernandez
signed an extension last season to be the No. 1 goaltender and was
off to a superb start before a knee injury ended his season in
January.

Backstrom, an unknown free agent signee from Finland, stepped in
and won over teammates with an unshakable poise uncommon among NHL
rookies. He led the league with a 1.97 goals-against average and a
.929 save percentage and was impressive in the Wild's first-round
playoff loss to Anaheim.

Combined with a little help from rookie Josh Harding along the
way, the Wild allowed a league-low 191 goals.

"It's been amazing here," Backstrom said Saturday. "I feel
very lucky to get a chance to come to [Minnesota] and it's an honor
to get an award like this."

Backstrom's performance makes it hard for the Wild to let him
go, and the two sides are working on getting a new contract done.
"Of course I want to be here," Backstrom said. "That's what
I'm hoping for and there's been talks about it."

The Wild will likely have to pay Backstrom somewhere in the
neighborhood of $3 million a year if they want to retain him.
Coupled with the two years Fernandez has left on the three-year,
$13 million deal he signed last year, that's an awful lot of money
to put between the pipes.

That's why, given the new salary cap structure, Fernandez
believes his days in Minnesota may be coming to an end.

"It's been really fun," Fernandez said of his six seasons with
the Wild, which started with the team's inception in 2000-01.
"It's been a great journey and it's tough to imagine [leaving].
But with the new rules and the new cap, it's tough to keep
everybody happy."

Not so fast, Lynn said. He has talked to Fernandez and said he
was assured that the goalie wasn't so much asking for a trade as
being pragmatic about the situation. But Lynn said trading
Fernandez is not a foregone conclusion.

"He knows it's a possibility, but Backstrom is not signed
yet," Lynn said. "We'll let this thing evolve. We're not going to
make any rash decisions. You need two good goalies to be successful
in this league."

Both goaltenders say the tenuousness of the situation hasn't
frayed their relationship. Backstrom credited Fernandez with easing
his transition to the United States from Finland, both on and off
the ice.

And Fernandez spoke glowingly of the job Backstrom did in his
stead.

"It would have been really devastating for this hockey club if
Nik hadn't played as well as he did," Fernandez said. "Nik is a
great guy. He's worked really hard to get there."