ST. PAUL, Minn. — On the day goaltender Niklas Backstrom returned to the ice, he also returned to the Minnesota Wild.
Backstrom, who underwent sports hernia surgery on May 16, agreed to terms with Minnesota on a three-year contract Monday that locks in the 35-year-old as the team’s top netminder. Backstrom tied for the league lead last season with 24 wins.
Backstrom, who was set to become an unrestricted free agent when free agency opens on July 5, had wanted to return to the only NHL team he has played for, and Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher said retaining Backstrom was his top offseason priority.
“I don’t think it has been a secret to anyone how much I’ve enjoyed playing for the Minnesota Wild and living in the ‘State of Hockey,’ ” Backstrom said Monday. “So, for sure, that was the team I was hoping for the chance to come back, and I’m really grateful and thankful that I can be back. It’s a great place for me. It feels like home, so it’s nice to be back.”
With both sides mutual attraction, Backstrom and the team worked out a three-year deal, worth a reported $10.25 million and a $3.42 annual cap number, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
Backstrom went 24-15-3 with a 2.48 goals-against average, a .909 save percentage and two shutouts in 42 games (41 starts) with Minnesota during the 2012-13 season. He tied for first in the NHL in wins, tied for fifth in games played and seventh in minutes played. Backstrom missed the playoffs after an injury suffered in the pregame warm-ups before Game 1, and the Wild lost in five games to the top-seeded Chicago Blackhawks.
Backstrom made $6 million last year in the final year of a four-year, $24 million contract he signed in 2009. But the league’s salary cap is dipping to $64.3 million next season and Minnesota had less than $7 million left in cap space before Backstrom’s new contract. The two sides worked on a deal that would comply with the Wild’s salary cap, while giving Backstrom long-term stability with the three years in the new deal.
“It just made too much sense not to re-sign him, but in this case, we were working with a player and his agent who really wanted to be here, as well,” Fletcher said. “We were able to find a way to give him some security in terms of a three-year deal. In exchange, he was willing to work with us in terms of our cap situation and give us a cap number that is very workable, not just for this year but going forward. I think it’s a win-win.”
Fletcher knew Backstrom would have commanded a top contract if he was unsigned into the free-agency period. The goaltending market is slim, with Phoenix’s Mike Smith, 31, considered the top free agent now that Backstrom has re-signed. The New York Islanders’ Evgeni Nabokov, 37, is the only other free-agent goaltender who started the majority of his team’s games last year, and Chicago’s backup, Ray Emery, will likely be coveted.
Backstrom also understood the Wild’s cap situation and was willing to work with Fletcher.
“For sure, that’s something that Chuck Fletcher asked a lot about,” Backstrom said. “It’s business, too, for me, but like I said, happiness is something that you can’t buy with money. It’s something in your heart and in your mind, so that’s the most important thing for me, to be happy.”
Fletcher said reaching contract terms with Backstrom was important to finish this week, in advance of Sunday’s NHL Draft and free agency.
“If it wasn’t going to work out, then we had a lot of work ahead of us,” Fletcher said.
In his seven years with Minnesota, Backstrom is 184-124-45 with a 2.43 GAA, a .917 save percentage. He is the franchise leader in wins, shutouts (28), shutout streak (157:44), games played (369), starts (358) and minutes played (21,149).
Backstrom said he feels good after his surgery in May and Monday was his first time back on the ice during his rehabilitation. He said it was only a coincidence he was back on the ice the same day as he received his new contract. The plan was to skate between five and six weeks from surgery, with Thursday marking six weeks since he had the sports hernia surgery done.
“My injury, after the surgery, everything feels good with the lower core so that feels good,” Backstrom said about his return to the ice. “So it’s how I expected it to feel. It’s been really good for a couple weeks, and for me it’s just to make sure on the ice that everything’s normal and everything’s good so we feel confident about it.”
The Wild plan to rotate Backstrom and Josh Harding, who started each of the playoff games, more next season. Backstrom was worked heavily down the stretch with Harding sidelined because of multiple sclerosis. Backstrom was on pace for a career-high in games, starting the final 15 and 31 of the last 33 regular-season games. Fletcher envisions more of a timeshare with Harding, similar to 2011-12 when Backstrom played in 46 games and Harding played in 34.
Backstrom enjoys the heavy workload and said he felt good last year, but he knows more time off might be needed during the period of his new contract.
“You want to improve your game, and (being on the ice is) the best way to do that,” Backstrom said. “But you have to find the right balance and see how you feel, like when you need a day off, when you need to skate. But I don’t know, for me, I love the game. I want to be on the ice every day, but that’s something they’ve been talking with (goaltending coach Bob) Mason about that, maybe that’s an issue for the game days, and like I said that’s something I have to work on.”
Fletcher said he is still talking with agents for the other unrestricted free agents, but the salary cap situation means the team won’t be able to re-sign all of the players reach free agency. Minnesota will need to make tough decisions and might need to get creative in free agency and with trades to improve the team.
“This was the big one,” Fletcher said. “I think we’ll just take a deep breath here. We’ll continue our dialogue with some of our free agents, and making calls to a lot of GMs around the league to see, to look for mutual fits and find ways to improve our team. We’ll continue to do that. Obviously, the draft’s on Sunday and that will become a prominent item for a lot of teams around the league, so we’ll see what we will be able to do there, as well.”