While the hockey world keeps its eye focused on Marian Gaborik's contract negotiations (as well as his groin), there's another pending unrestricted free agent that is just as important to the Minnesota Wild franchise: Goaltender Niklas Backstrom.
The 30-year-old goaltender has been nothing short of phenomenal since coming on the scene in 2006. With a career goals-against average of 2.18, .924 save pct. and a 64-23-15 record, Backstrom will likely double his $3.1 million salary thanks to a weak free agent crop of goaltenders next summer.
Minnesota General Manager Doug Risebrough is willing to wait to see how the season shapes up for Backstrom, but he'll likely turn his attention to his No. 1 goaltender once the Gaborik situation has reached a conclusion (if there ever is one). Backup Josh Harding hasn't turned any heads in Minnesota, nor has he given Risebrough any reason to think that letting Backstrom walk would be a wise decision. He has a right to be wary, especially after last season when Harding won once in his final nine starts last season:
"Josh has got to move to the next level of being a legitimate guy that we can go to in situations, and I never felt that in the second half," Risebrough said. "He just wasn't there, which is all right. That's part of the development. But we've told him that 'your step up is to grab games from Backstrom.'"
Harding has only played in two games this season, but done a decent job so far. He'll be a restricted free agent on July 1.
Backstrom detractors could say that he's the product of head coach Jacques Lemaire's defensive system; the same argument that's brought up by those who believe Martin Brodeur is overrated. But, if you're the Minnesota Wild, do you want to take the chance on an unproven backup goaltender?
According to Hockey Wilderness, they shouldn't:
"All of the focus is on a man who has never played a full season due to injury, and who has been an absolute disappearing act in the playoffs. All this while the rock in the net gets over looked and ignored by management.
This is the Brian Rolston negotiation all over again. If DR waits until the season ends, the Wild will lose Backs. Negotiate now, and you can keep him until the end of his career, and likely at a reasonable price.
The differences between the Moneybags situation, and the situation with Backstrom are too numerous to go into. However, the main difference is that Backstrom is one of the best, while Gaborik is simply better than most. Gaborik is not a leader, Backstrom is. The most glaring difference, and the one that flips the PR game is Backs' favor? He wants to be here, and has said so."
Whatever happens to both Gaborik and Backstrom, this is a very important season for the Wild franchise. They have their superstar player and superstar goaltender both on the verge of big raises. Minnesota has $37 million committed for next season, but with eight soon-to-be unrestricted free agents and four restricted free agents, how will Doug Risebrough approach the future of the team? Backstrom's future won't be determined until Gaborik is either signed or dealt.
An alternate thought: With the Wild's hot start, does Risebrough roll the dice and keep Gaborik all season and sign Backstrom instead for a run at the Stanley Cup?
It'll be an interesting season in Minnesota, both on and off the ice.