The Minnesota Wild department at The Hockey Writers is starting a series that will look at the franchise’s top 10 players all-time in honor of their 20th anniversary last season. THW’s Wild team consisting of Aaron Heckmann, Justin Walters, Mariah Holland, and myself voted on this list, and it will continue with the 7th spot as we work our way down to the best player in franchise history.
When it comes to the Wild and their goaltending history, it’s hard not to immediately think of Niklas Backstrom, who clocks in at the No. 7 spot on our list. While he may never have been the NHL’s top goalie, it’s hard to ignore the mark that he left in Minnesota.
An undrafted goaltender, Backstrom’s road to the NHL was longer than most. He spent the first half of his 20s playing in his native country of Finland, with most of his notable playing coming with Kärpät in the Finnish Elite League. Backstrom was arguably the driving force behind the club’s success, as he led the team to its first league championship in 23 years back in 2004. Rather than being satisfied with that, he once again led Kärpät to another championship in 2005, posting a 10-2-0 record, .950 save percentage (SV%) and 1.25 goals against average (GAA) with three shutouts along the way.
It soon became clear that Backstrom was too good to remain in Finland for the rest of his career, which is why he flew overseas and signed with the Wild ahead of the 2006-07 NHL season. He began the year as Manny Fernandez’s backup; however, it didn’t take the Finnish netminder that long to steal the job. A nagging knee injury kept Fernandez out of the lineup for a decent part of the season, which opened the door to Backstrom playing 41 games in his first NHL campaign. When all was said and done, he impressed Wild fans with a 23-8-6 record, 0.929 SV% and 1.97 GAA with five shutouts. His efforts helped him and Fernandez split that year’s William M. Jennings Trophy, which is awarded to the goalie(s) on the team that surrendered the fewest goals in the regular season. That was just the beginning of an impressive nine-year stint in Minnesota.
While Backstrom is known for his time with the Wild, many forget that his final NHL season actually came with the Calgary Flames in 2015-16. Backstrom began that season with Minnesota; however, he didn’t play any games and was traded to the Flames for David Jones. Ultimately, the Finn appeared in just four games in a Flames jersey before returning to his home country to finish off his career and retire in 2019. Since then, Backstrom has returned to the NHL, albeit as a goalie development coach with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Tenure With the Wild
Goalies are one of the trickiest positions to figure out in the NHL, which is why the Wild should consider themselves lucky that they had Backstrom in between the pipes for nearly a decade. His first seven years with the team were his best, as he played at least 41 games in each of those seasons, achieving at least 22 wins in all but one of those campaigns.
While Backstrom had some great campaigns under his belt, none are better than his performance in the 2008-09 NHL season. By that point, he had firmly established himself as a no. 1 goalie in the league, finishing the year by going 37-24-8 with eight shutouts, which is still a franchise record that stands to this day. The rest of the league took notice of his talents that season, as Backstrom placed third when it came to Vezina Trophy voting at the end of the season. Unfortunately, the Finn’s efforts weren’t enough to get the Wild into the postseason, as Minnesota missed the 2008-09 playoffs by two points.
Unfortunately, the 2008-09 season was the last time that Backstrom ever had a Vezina-quality performance. While he remained Minnesota’s starter for the next few years, he never hit the 30-win mark again. Instead, he hovered around the 20-25 win plateau for his remaining time with the team. Backstrom saw fewer and fewer games each season as his play began to decline, mainly due to injuries. Still, he remained loyal to the Wild, playing as many games as they needed him to. Unfortunately, the arrival of goaltenders like Devan Dubnyk and Darcy Kuemper signaled the end of the Backstrom era in Minnesota as the aging goalie could no longer perform like he once had. He remained with the Wild until the 2015-16 NHL season, which is when he was traded mid-season to the Flames. Even if Backstrom’s play dropped off toward the end of his Wild tenure, that doesn’t change the fact that he’ll always have a special place in the hearts of Minnesota fans everywhere.
Why Is Backstrom Deserving?
It’s not hard to figure out why Backstrom deserves the no. 7 spot on our list. All you have to do is look to Minnesota’s all-time goalie records to see just what sort of impact he had on the franchise. Backstrom ranks first when it comes to all-time goalie games played (409), wins (354) and shutouts (28). His .915 SV% and 2.48 GAA with Minnesota rank second and third, respectively, among Wild goaltenders who’ve played at least 200 games with the club. That’s not even to mention how his 71 games played and eight shutouts are two single-season Minnesota records that will be incredibly tough to beat in today’s NHL.
While it would have been nice to see Backstrom win more individual hardware or even lead the Wild to a deep playoff run, that doesn’t change the impact that he’s had on the organization and its fans. People rarely have a bad word to say about him, and it wouldn’t be surprising if his number is retired in the Xcel Energy Center somewhere down the line.
Until another netminder surpasses Backstrom’s legacy and records, he’ll be synonymous with Wild goaltending for years to come.
As a lifelong hockey fan and recent Master of Journalism graduate, it’s always been my dream to write about the sport. That’s why you can find me here on THW covering the Minnesota Wild! You may also see my work on FanDuel, the Ottawa Citizen, and various sports betting sites. Follow me on Twitter @devplat!