Offseason attention may have been devoted to big free agent signings Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, but there should be no mistaking that veteran goaltender Niklas Backstrom is a vital piece of the puzzle for the 2013 version of the Minnesota Wild. Backstrom was an important part of the Wild team that reached the postseason in back-to-back years 2006-08 and through 21 games of the shortened 2013 NHL season it has become obvious that his play will be vital for this team’s success once again.
The last 11 games have seen Mike Yeo’s team really turn their fortunes around after a rocky start to the season. Minnesota are 7-3-1 during that span and their offense has shown real signs of life over the past three or four games. Eight of those 11 games have been against opposition who are in the new Western conference in the proposed re-alignment with Niklas Backstrom starting six of those games. Through those six games he has posted a .932 save percentage and a 1.67 GAA in those match-ups. There’s little doubt that the 35-year old has tamed the Wild West during the past few weeks.
The impacts of Parise and Suter shouldn’t be under-estimated. They rank second and third on the team in scoring with 15 and 14 points respectively, while Parise has already assumed an important role as a leader on this roster and Suter has been seeing huge amounts of ice time in all situations.
However, Niklas Backstrom was always going to be an important factor as well. The 35-year old has struggled to re-discover the dominant form that he displayed in his first three seasons including being nominated as a Vezina Trophy finalist for the 2008-09 season. Injuries have undoubtedly been a factor over the past few seasons as well as the transition of the Minnesota franchise.
Still, there were some concerns heading into the 2013 NHL season that Backstrom had been a product of former Wild coach Jacques Lemaire intensive defensive system [Minnesota Wild First Quarter Review]. In 2011-12, Yeo’s first season as head coach, he posted a strong .919 save percentage and 2.43 GAA overall, but really struggled with injuries and for form from February on. Niklas Backstrom failed to step up and carry his team when Minnesota needed it.
Through the first half the 2013 NHL season, he is making amends. While the Wild have struggled for scoring all season long, Backstrom has been pulled once, while never suffering putting disappointing performances in consecutive games. He owns a 9-5-2 record through 16 games with a .917 save percentage and 2.21 GAA.
More importantly there are signs that Niklas Backstrom has added elements to his game. His rebound control has undoubtedly improved substantially after being exploited at times last season, while his general composure seems good. This is a contract year for a goaltender who made $6 million annually on his previous contract. Backstrom will know that he has to earn a new contract and that he is now playing for a franchise that has a real chance to compete in the near future.