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Late-blooming Niklas Backstrom has been a boon for Wild

The Canadian Press
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The Hockey News
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Late-blooming Niklas Backstrom has been a boon for Wild

The Canadian Press
By:

ST. PAUL, Minn. - Niklas Backstrom is so determined to succeed, so disciplined in his focus that upon learning of his first all-star selection last week he expressed relief the news was delivered on a day without a game.

The Minnesota Wild goalie didn't want to be distracted.

Backstrom isn't outwardly bothered by much, not even the fact the team has not addressed his contract, which expires at the end of the season.

With a 2.16 goals against average that ranks fourth in the NHL, five shutouts (only Steve Mason of Columbus has more) and 36 starts in Minnesota's 43 games, Backstrom has set himself up for a big payday when he becomes a free agent in July.

"Obviously it's going to be a goaltender-friendly team, a defensive system, but there are nights when we need him," Wild assistant coach Bob Mason said. "We need our goalies early. We need our goalies late. ... I don't care who you're playing. You don't know what you're going to see, so your preparation has got to be solid."

Backstrom has that part down. His work ethic and dedication are widely praised in the organization, which signed him in 2006 out of Finland as fill-in. Dwayne Roloson, himself an all-star in 2004, was traded earlier that year to make Manny Fernandez the main man in the net.

Assistant general manager Tom Thompson received a strong recommendation on Backstrom from scout Matti Vaisanen.

"To be honest, I was watching other guys in the game, and a 27-year-old goalie at the time wasn't high on my priority list," Thompson said. "It turned out great. He grew into his body and developed later than most guys."

The plan was to have Backstrom, then 28 without a minute of playing experience for a team outside of northern Europe, split time as the backup with another rookie, Josh Harding. They'd be able to go up and down from Minnesota to the minors without clearing waivers.

But Harding hurt his groin during training camp, and Backstrom was on the roster for opening day. About 3 1/2 months into his first season, Fernandez went down with a knee injury and suddenly this stone-faced, soft-spoken goalie his teammates had barely heard of before the year was turning away shot after shot and leading the Wild to the playoffs.

Two seasons later, he's heading to the all-star game, next weekend in Montreal.

"I just tried to make the team and be part of the team," Backstrom said. "That was the biggest goal. You know when you get there, you want to be better. You want to raise the bar. You want to improve."

This inner drive is an inherent trait.

"That's a big part of what I learned from both parents," said Backstrom, who still summers in Helsinki. "It's also in the Finnish culture. They're proud of being hardworking people. That's for sure something you learn at home."

Backstrom was an unknown in scouting circles until the 2004-05 season, when NHL stars went back to their native countries during the lockout and significantly upgraded the competition in the European leagues. That's when Backstrom began to believe in his ability to play with the best, and look at his options for coming to North America.

"I was lucky, really lucky, to get a chance to come over here," Backstrom said. "I wasn't that young anymore. But I got a chance, and that was the biggest thing for me."

He'll turn 31 next month, but he has a lot of years left.

"I've seen some tough times in hockey. I was pretty close to quitting hockey when I was 20, so I'm just happy to be here every day," Backstrom said.

It's not clear, though, how much longer he'll be in Minnesota.

He's grown to enjoy the culture and off-the-ice life in and around his downtown Minneapolis home, and his roots make the cold easier to tolerate. His English is much better than his first season, and he's more at ease with the media as he discusses his performance and status.

The Wild won't comment on their plans for the position, one that's arguably easier to thrive in under coach Jacques Lemaire and his defence-first system that keeps opponent shots-on-goal totals low. Backstrom, on the other hand, has become one of their most valuable players during a season where Marian Gaborik's injury has left the offensive production in short supply. Harding is unproven, and Backstrom's consistency and calm demeanour - a contrast to the moody Fernandez - are more critical to this Wild's success than ever.

"I don't want to pretend that we've had no discussions," said Backstrom's agent, Don Baizley, of his contract situation, "but there's just really not anything to report right now."

Baizley called Backstrom his lowest-maintenance client. Backstrom flashed a sheepish smile and nervous laugh when told of this characterization.

"I want to focus on the team and do the best I can, and I've got an agent who takes care of the rest," Backstrom said. "It would be wrong about my team and my teammates if I would be selfish and start to think about that. I have to be out there every night and play the best I can."

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Late-blooming Niklas Backstrom has been a boon for Wild