Goaltenders, by nature, are known as being an eccentric group. They have quirks, superstitions, and game day routines that can be confusing, confounding, and just plain odd. We in Minnesota have been blessed with several of these intriguing personalities including a couple of Americans, an abundance of Canadians, a pair of Russians, and a lone Finn. Their personalities have ranged from dangerously stoic to violently competitive (by kicking walls) to philanthropic ("is only game, why you heff to be mad?") to obsessively compulsive in their actions on and off the ice. But among all of that, one man stands alone as the franchise's most decorated and tenured veteran, and today that tenure has come to an end.
Niklas Backstrom, the lone Finn, the Wild's longest-lasting and highly beloved goaltender has been set free of his contract prison and sent to Calgary today. The deal brings David Jones to the Wild and gives Backstrom the opportunity to perhaps earn some playing time in what might be his final NHL season. Though Wild fans with short memories will only remember the turmoil surrounding Niklas and his final contract in Minnesota, others will look back on his time with the Wild with reverence and the legacy he leaves behind him in the State of Hockey.
Backstrom began his career in his home country of Finland, spending time in not only the Finnish professional league, SM-liiga, but also as a member of Finland's World Junior (U20) team and Finland's Olympic team, earning many honors along the way. Backstrom's professional career began at age 18 in 1996 for HIFK of SM-liiga, where he spent 4 years. He didn't see much action as a member of that team, but posted a very nice .932 SV% and 1.69 GAA in 16 games during the 1998-99 season. Backstrom won the gold medal prior to that season at the World Juniors as Finland's backup. He went on to play for a couple of other teams in SM-liiga, becoming a decorated veteran, twice being an all-star, twice earning the Jarri Kurri trophy for playoff MVP, twice capturing the Urpo Ylonen trophy for best goaltender, and capturing 2 SM-liiga championships. In 2005-06 he won a Bronze medal at the World Championships and a Silver Medal at the Olympics for Team Finland.
Because of his notoriety in Finland, he gathered a lot of attention from the NHL and was brought to Minnesota to back up Manny Fernandez and the Wild. In the course of that 2006-07 season, Fernandez injured his knee and Backstrom took over as Minnesota's starter. Over the course of just 36 starts, Backstrom would set himself at the top of the league for with a .929 SV%, a 1.97 GAA and would tie Dwayne Roloson's team record of 5 shutouts in a season. Fernandez would be traded away that year and Backstrom would take the net for the Wild's first trip to the playoffs since making it to the Conference Finals in 2003. The team also set its high-water mark of earning 104 points that season. Backstrom would go on to be an NHL all-star and Vezina Trophy finalist in the 2008-09 season and capture two more Bronze medals for Team Finland at the World Championships in 2008-09 and 2009-10.
While doing so, Backstrom has far surpassed his netminder peers in the Wild organization, holding the team lead in games played (409), wins (194), and shutouts (28) and no one is close in any of those categories. He has seen the Wild through several tough seasons and several successful ones, and helped provide stability to a team through coaching, management and ownership changes. His quirky personality did not allow him to interact with the media on game day, and his game-day warmup, aptly dubbed the "Turtle Walk", is a piece of Minnesota Hockey folklore. Though his most recent contract has been an albatross for the team and his last 3 seasons sullied with injuries, Backstrom had a remarkable career as a member of the Wild, and has earned his place in Wild history. Today marks the end of an era for this team, and we salute Niklas for all of the things he has done for the Wild and wish him well with his new club and his pending retirement.