Looking only at Minnesota Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom’s stat line from this season, you might get the perception the 31-year-old Finn has struggled early on. But don’t tell him that.
“I don’t know about numbers, I don’t really follow them,” Backstrom said. “I just try to be at my best every night and so far, so good, but you always want to be better.”
Certainly his 2.59 goals-against average and .912 save percentage are a step in the wrong direction compared to his first three years in the league, but much of that can be attributed to the overall play of the team, which sits last in the West with a 7-10-0 record.
The Wild has been charged with learning a new, more up-tempo system under first-year coach Todd Richards after he replaced the uber-defensive-minded Jacques Lemaire, the only coach the organization knew since its inception in 2000-01. The learning curve has been steep.
“We were doing a lot of different things for the past eight years and now there’s some new things to learn and that takes time,” Backstrom said. “We’re getting there. The last couple of weeks we’ve been playing some pretty good hockey and we’re getting better every game; a couple months from now we’re going to be even better.”
The Wild have certainly looked much improved over their past five outings going 4-1-0, including road wins over the Penguins and Maple Leafs. While the team appears to have turned a corner top to bottom, there’s no denying who has been the catalyst for the recent success.
“If you want to win games you have to have a great goalie,” said right winger Martin Havlat. “And he’s exactly what we need. He’s done it throughout his whole career, not just this year.”
Backstrom’s role as top dog in Minnesota is unquestioned, but the same can’t be said for his standing with Team Finland for the upcoming Olympic Games in Vancouver. The Helsinki native will realistically battle Calgary’s Miikka Kiprusoff for the starting role, with either Tampa Bay’s Antero Niittymaki or Nashville’s Pekka Rinne as the Finns’ No. 3.
“There’s a lot of Finnish goalies in the league, a lot of good goalies,” Backstrom said. “We’ll see what happens when they pick the team; that’s the coaches’ job. I just try to focus on the play here in the league and play as well as I can.”
Don’t mistake Backstrom’s here-and-now focus for lack of Olympic desire, however.
“Like every athlete, the Olympics is a big thing; you want to be there, you want to be part of that,” Backstrom said. “But you can’t be too concerned with it, you have to be ready for your next game.”
It’s not surprising that Backstrom, who underwent left hip surgery in the off-season, puts his priority with his club team. After all, it’s the Wild who ponied up $24 million in February to keep him off the free agent market and in Minnesota for the next four seasons.
With big bucks come high expectations, however. And though his sub-par stats may be causing some restless nights amongst fans in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, it’s not a feeling shared by Backstrom’s new bench boss.
“I don’t think there’s any anxiety or anxious moments on the bench when you see him play,” Richards said. “He looks like he’s in control all the time.”
THE NEW ‘CAPTAIN KOIVU’
Since breaking into the league in 2000, the Minnesota Wild have had a rotating captaincy. But that all changed in October when they named Mikko Koivu as full-time captain.
The native of Turku, Finland has embraced his new role on the team and with the departure of Marian Gaborik in the off-season, Koivu has also become the Wild’s offensive leader. He leads the team in assists with 11 and points with 16.
Continuing the league’s trend toward younger captains, Minnesota tapped the 26-year-old in just his fifth year in the league. THN.com’s Rory Boylen takes a closer look at the new ‘Captain Koivu’ as he settles into the driver’s seat in Minnesota. PRODUCER: Ted Cooper
Edward Fraser is the editor of thehockeynews.com. His blog appears Thursdays.
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