What Might Be Wrong With Niklas Backstrom?

Doug Pensinger

theories and speculation

Niklas Backstrom has struggled mightily this season. Out of 15 games played, he has won 2 and been pulled out of 3. He left two games due to injury. His SV% is presently at the lowest in his career at .896% and he's allowing an average of 3.18 goals per game. He's on the longest losing streak of his career. He's missed 5 games with a knee strain and 4 games with a concussion. The rest of this article isn't as depressing as this first paragraph.

Granted, he wasn't exactly stellar last year either. He won 24 of 42 games, had a SV% of 9.09 and allowed an average of 2.48 goals per game. Last year was also different. Half the season was missed due to the lockout, and players were practicing on their own for longer than normal. Backstrom did not play overseas. He had arrangements to but then injured his ankle. Training camp was shortened. So it might have just been due to the weird season. But it's continuing this year, so, perhaps not.

Let's take a look at what may be contributing to his decline, going from the unlikely to the likely.

First, there is his age. Backstrom is 35. He'll turn 36 in February. The average age of a goalie in the NHL is 29. So he's a bit long in the tooth for a goaltender. He also has a history of hip issues, and as he continues to age, he is going to lose more flexibility in those hips. However, going down into the butterfly is not where I see a problem right now.

Then, there's his confidence. He's coming off of a rough season, having a pretty bad one, isn't always getting a whole lot of support on the ice from his team, and opposing players seem to like to crash his net and injure him. It's not good to be Niklas Backstrom right now. I hope his personal life is going better. But, on the ice, he may not exactly be exuding confidence. I still think it's more than a psyche issue though.

He's had two injuries this season. The first was a knee strain when he was crashed into by Eric Nystrom on October 9th in Nashville. He was out 5 games with this one. Watching him skate, I don't see any problems. As I said above, I see no problem with him going into the butterfly, or with side to side movement. I think his knee is good. The second injury he suffered was a concussion when he was run into and elbowed by Nazem Kadri. I'm going to look into this one further.

We've talked previously on the site about the physical symptoms of concussions, and with the concussion history of the Wild, we're all certainly familiar with them. What doesn't get talked about are the mental aspects of a concussion. Mental symptoms of a concussion can include depression, disturbed sleep, lack of concentration and focus, sensitivity to light and can affect reflexes and muscle coordination. The mental symptoms can continue after the physical symptoms have ceased.

In order to recover from a concussion, the recommendations are to shut yourself down completely. For an athlete, this means a stoppage of training and anything else that produces symptoms. So, they start to lose their conditioning. For a goalie, their game is very mental as well as physical. The mental symptoms of a concussion mean the mental training that goalies work on to stay sharp is also put on hold. Their mental acuity begins to atrophy as well. James Reimer discussed the affects of time off due to concussion. "When you're out, your brain relaxes, per se. Your brain needs to work out again so it can focus, just like your body needs to get back into shape."(Cotsonika) When Ryan Miller returned from concussion, it was 6 weeks before he returned to form.

I've been watching Backstrom. I went back prior to righting this and rewatched several goals allowed as well as saves. Here's what I've noticed. On the saves, Backstrom has had some great ones. He's also had several near misses. On the goals he's allowed, yes, there have been some that he had no chance on. I noticed this first last night, on the Giroux goal and went back and really watched to see if I was seeing what I thought I was. Then I watched more. And more.

The good news. I think this is fixable. What I'm seeing is he's slow at times. His reflexes are delayed. And he doesn't always appear to be in the game. Obviously, he wouldn't be playing if he were still having physical concussion symptoms, i.e. headaches and dizziness, but what about the mental ones? Obviously, that is something that wouldn't affect a forward or a defenseman as much as a goaltender, and return to play guidelines don't focus as heavily on these symptoms. Backstrom had interrupted starts prior to his injury, never finding a groove and having a chance to fine tune everything. With the knee injury, he could still do mental training. With the concussion, everything was at a standstill. He is not going to get consistent playing time unless Harding seriously falters, so he is going to have to do everything he can to mentally prepare and retune his reflexes in practice and on his own. I think the not appearing to have his head in the game at all times will pass. Ryan Miller admitted that it was 6 weeks before he could focus on a full 60 minute game following concussion. This was 6 weeks after he returned to play. (Yikes!)

So, I think, in time, Backstrom should return to where he was. I don't think he's going to be a number 1 goalie in the NHL again, but he's going to make a good backup. What I'm seeing right now is injury related. It's not that he needs to heal; I think the brain is healed. He needs to finish the recovery. Once he does, his play should improve.

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