Offseason Analysis: Niklas Backstrom & The Minnesota Wild Goaltending Situation


Apr 9, 2013; St. Paul, MN, USA; Minnesota Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom (32) against the Chicago Blackhawks at the Xcel Energy Center. The Blackhawks defeated the Wild 1-0. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

On Monday, the Minnesota Wild re-signed Niklas Backstrom, thus putting a fork in all the speculation about UFA signings and trades that would need to be made to secure a tenable goaltending situation for 2013/2014.

Backstrom, 35, who was set to become an unrestricted free agent on July 5th, will make annual salaries of $2.5 million, $3.75 million and $4 million for a total of $10.25 million with a cap hit of about $3.42 million.

Comparing his new cap hit to other goalies around the league shows that Backstrom has a smaller cap-hit next year than the following players who were in the same ballpark stats-wise: Devan Dubnyk, Kari Lehtonen, Martin Brodeur, Carey Price, Ondrej Pavelec, Mikka Kiprusoff and Jonathan Quick.

At a glance it seems like the Wild got a great deal here. With the impending “cap hell” caused by Dany Heatley’s buy-out ineligibility, the franchise’s competitiveness next year could rely on players who have been here for a while taking below-the-market wages to stay, out of respect for the team. It seems that Backstrom has done just that. He probably could have earned a lot more on the UFA market, but obviously feels loyalty to the Wild. So, this is a pretty nice coup for Chuck Fletcher and his assistants as far as the salary cap goes. But what does this mean to the team in terms of performance? Signing for a cheap cap hit is all well and good, but the Wild still need Backstrom to play like a top #1 goaltender if they are to compete next year.

While the future looks bright for the team’s goaltending, with highly-touted youngsters Kuemper (who already has a share of NHL experience) and Johan Gustafsson (coming from the Swedish Elite League with the a reputation as a winner) set to battle it out for the starter’s job for the Iowa Wild, the present is slightly more complicated, with Josh Harding’s health and ability to continue to compete at a high level because of it in doubt. While it is possible that Backstrom and Harding will share the workload as they normally do, if Harding’s MS begins to affect him, then the team will either have to, once again, overload Backstrom, or toss Kuemper (or maybe Gustafsson) into the fold before they are ready.

This is why Backstrom’s play will be imperative. He is 35, and there is every chance he could begin to decline this year, or maybe already is declining. I have taken a look at every season since the 2007 offseason, when Manny Fernandez was traded away and Backstrom became the Wild’s starter, to see how he has performed each year and whether or not there are signs of decline in his numbers My analysis goes from his first two years as starter which ended with him being named as runner-up for the Vezina and earning himself the 4-year, $24 million contract that just expired, to the 4 years after.

Using ““, I set-up a criteria of goaltenders who had played at least 1500 minutes, then I looked at the 5v5 On-Ice Goal Stats and compiled the relevant data into the table below. I singled-out Backstrom’s GA20 and Sv% for each of the last 6 seasons, the numbers of the goaltenders who led the league in both stats each year, and Backstrom’s TOI each year.

#= number of goaltenders who were eligible by my criteria.

GA20=Goals Against while player is on ice per 20 minutes of ice time.

Sv%=Save Percentage

07/08332424:070.701 (15th)D.HASEK (0.497)92.94 (15th)JS.GIGUERE (93.93)
08/09333134:220.715 (15th)T.THOMAS (0.561)92.73 (13th)T.THOMAS (94.44)
09/10342625:450.792 (21st)T. RASK (0.590)91.64 (24th)T.VOKOUN (93.65)
10/11322294:360.723 (12th)T.THOMAS (.539)93.09 (7th)T.THOMAS (94.92)
11/12352001:300.669 (6th)B.ELLIOTT (0.512)93.17 (6th)B.ELLIOTT (94.11)
12/13181840:440.761 (10th)J.HOWARD (0.555)91.69 (13th)S.BOBROVSKY (94.18)
  • His GA20 has been steady each year aside from a fairly shoddy 09/10, coming to a head when he finished 6th in the league during his injury-plagued 2011/2012.
  • His Sv% was good for his first two years as starter, before taking a dip for 09/10, and recovering for the next two years, where he finished 7th and 6th in the league.
  • The 09/10 season sticks out like a sore thumb on this list, but I think some of the blame for his down year could be attributed to the amount of turnover the franchise was experiencing at the time, with Todd Richards coming-in as head coach and replacing Jacques Lemaire’s defensive strategy with a more offensively-minded approach. Call this year an “adjustment period”.
  • The great thing about the two seasons after 09/10 is that Backstrom showed he could perform to a high level without the benefit of Lemaire’s neutral-zone trap system, as he put up good numbers in both seasons under first Todd Richards and then Mike Yeo.
  • It is clear that Backstrom has been a reasonably solid goalie since taking over the starter job. He is certainly not “elite”, though he did come close  to the league’s top-tier with his performances between 2010 and 2012.
  • 12/13 is a bit odd as, due to the lack of games, only 18 goaltenders were eligible. While this is valuable analysis, as it is important to compare him against goalies with a similar workload, some of the league’s best goalies were left-out. Changing the criteria to “goalies who have played 100 minutes or more” adds another 12 candidates, and drops Backstrom to 17th and 22nd in each category.
  • There is reasonable correlation between his numbers in 09/10 and 12/13 AKA his two down seasons. He bounced back from his poor 09/10 to produce two excellent seasons in a row. It isn’t beyond the realm of possibility that he could have a similar bounce-back year in 2013/2014. Obviously he is older now than he was in 2010, and has suffered some injuries since then, but it is not uncommon for goalies to continue to produce at a high level right into their late-thirties, as long as they stay healthy. This season could just be a bad year that he can come back from and put behind him, rather than a stepping-stone on the road of a veteran goalie’s decline.

Next, I analysed Backstrom’s workload during his tenure as starter to see how ice-time and game-starts relate to his performance:


(NB=Niklas Backstrom/JH=Josh Harding/WD=Wade Dubielwicz/AK=Anton Khudobin/JT-Jose Theodore/MH=Matt Hackett/DK=Darcy Kuemper)

(Games Started/Overall TOI)

07/08NB (57/3408:38)JH: (25/1570:34)————————-———————
08/09NB: (71/4088:03)JH: (11/869:49)————————-———————
09/10NB: (58/3489:23)JH: (22/1300:11)WD: (1/100:31)AK: (1/69:27)
10/11NB: (50/2977:33)JT: (29/1792:54)AK: (3/188:44)JH (INJURED)
11/12NB: (45/2589:41)JH: (30/1854:52)MH: (7/555:34)———————
12/13NB: (41/2368:08)DK: (3/288:18)JH: (3/185:05)MH: (1/59:12)
  •  The share of games Backstrom has started has steadily declined since 08/09, though, strangely, in his first year as starter, he split time more evenly with Josh Harding than he would again until 11/12.
  • He put-up his best numbers in two seasons where he had below 3000 minutes TOI, and started around 60% per cent of games. This year he started 41 out of 48 and his performance rapidly declined towards the end of the year, whether through fatigue, or an injury he was hiding. The latter reason is quite possible as he broke-down before Game 1 of the play-offs and did not return.
  • So, it is possible that the key to getting the best out of Backstrom in the coming year (and future seasons) is to keep his workload at around 60-65%, which means that someone will have to cover the other 35-40%. Obviously, Josh Harding, if healthy will be able to manage that without a problem. But if Harding can’t do it, then the Wild will have to trust one of their young goalies to step-up or else risk over-playing Backstrom.

It is possible that Backstrom could continue to contribute at a high level for the 3 years of his new contract without rapidly declining or breaking-down. Do I think he spends most of the next 3 years as starter? No. I think one of the Wild’s young goalies will have cemented themselves as the starter within the next two years. But I see him still playing a share of games as a veteran back-up at the age of 38 come 2015/2016. After that, who knows?

Overall, this is a good deal for the Wild. Now they need Backstrom to bounce back and show that he is still able to succeed as a starting goalie in the NHL.