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Niklas Backstrom lends calm, stability to Wild net with new deal

Niklas Backstrom is the unquestioned starter, taking his US$6.2-million, two-year contract and NHL-best 1.97 goals-against average from last season into this campaign. Josh Harding is the backup, but there will be no wonder about who's in what role - as has been the case through most of this franchise's history.

Backstrom's new deal came in June and Manny Fernandez was traded to Boston in July, paving the path for a setup that appears much more smooth than in the past.

"We know he's a great goalie," defenceman Brent Burns said. "We knew that last year. We know how good he is. That's nothing new."

Fernandez had some great moments as Minnesota's goalie, but he had issues with knee injuries and his attitude sometimes rankled the Wild. His biggest problem, arguably, was keeping a level head and not letting frustrations throw him off his game. Splitting time - mostly with Dwayne Roloson - was never easy for him.

Though Backstrom has just completed one NHL season and must prove he's capable of performing well for more than just a few months, there is no concern about the former Finnish League star's demeanour.

"He doesn't get stressed at all," defenceman Kim Johnsson said. "He's mentally strong. Just calm. He just adds a calming feeling to the whole team when he's in there."

With his heavily accented monotone and classic poker face, Backstrom flashed a few smiles during an interview on the first day of training camp - but otherwise expressed little emotion about his newfound security and responsibility.

"It's good to be back. I've been waiting for this the whole summer. It's good to start from here and get back to work," Backstrom said.

The 29-year-old Backstrom, who gave up three goals or fewer in 38 of 41 appearances last season, posted a 23-8-6 record in 2006-07. He tried to downplay his increased stature, but when pressed he acknowledged this is much different than last year when he came into camp as an unknown rookie and was expected to be sent to Houston in the AHL to start the season. But Harding got hurt, and Backstrom emerged.

"I have to be ready every day," he said. "I think that's the way I can improve my own game, to work hard and try to do everything as good as possible. If I lay down for a day or sit down for a day, then I'm not improving my game. It's the best league in the world, and somebody is for sure going to take your spot then."

The Wild were bounced from the playoffs last year by Stanley Cup champion Anaheim in the first round, and they bring higher hopes to 2007-08. Players like Keith Carney, Pavol Demitra and Johnsson are more accustomed to coach Jacques Lemaire's system.

Minnesota went 31-9-6 over last season's final 46 games, a surge sparked by Marian Gaborik's return from a groin injury. That finish is generating a major source of confidence heading into this season.



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