Niklas Backstrom's role has changed, but his routine hasn't. For the Wild, that's the route to success.
A year ago, when just about everybody assumed a one-way ticket to the minors was in Niklas Backstrom's immediate future, he showed up early for work, stayed late on the rink, kept his mouth shut and his eyes open.
Move forward to this year, a Wild training camp in which Backstrom is the present and immediate future of the team's plans at goaltender. Backstrom is No. 1 -- by both acclamation and remuneration -- and what does he do? He shows up early for work, he stays late on the ice. He remains the strong, silent type.
"No, no in some ways it's different," Backstrom said. "I am more experienced now. I know all the guys here, the system of play. But I have to be the same goalie I was last year. That's what I have to focus on."
A year ago Backstrom was a free-agent signee from Finland. This year he is the owner of a two-year, $6.2 million contract the Wild signed him to shortly before trading Manny Fernandez to Boston.
Other than that, nothing seems to have changed, and just about everybody with the team loves it. If Backstrom is unlikely to provide a winning sound bite, listen to his teammates. A quick glove and a short memory, said Mark Parrish.
"He's a flat-line ranger," said goaltenders coach Bob Mason.
This is a good thing, by the way. During his time with the Wild, Mason has worked with the rock that was Dwayne Roloson and the more flighty Fernandez.
"Roli was the same way," Mason said. "He had the same routine, he was low-key. He did what he had to do. He didn't show a lot of range, either in his emotion or his range of play. He was a flat-liner. This guy is a flat-liner, too."
Same routine, hopefully the same results.
Backstrom was the calming force for an unsettled team last season, a big reason for Wild's second-half run to the playoffs. He finished with a 23-8-6 record, was part of a goaltending team that allowed the fewest goals in the NHL and had a goals-against average (1.97) and save percentage (.929) that was best in the league.
Here is the best reason to think that it can happen again. Despite what Parrish said, Backstrom's memory goes way back to his first year in the Finnish elite league, which ended with him struggling and being sent down.
"I always remember that," Backstrom said. "Playing in the first division, being sent down, almost seeing the end of my career. I worked my way up from there. It's different when you've been really down. You know how to appreciate things when they're going well. The key is keeping your feet on the ground. When you've been down there, you don't want to go back. You'll do anything in your power to stay up."
And so a man married to routine will happily stay in his rut. Perhaps the only change is his move to downtown Minneapolis from his apartment in St. Paul. But that was more for his girlfriend, Heidi, who will spend the whole season here with him after spending every other month here a year ago.
Other than that, no changes.
"Always as a goalie -- all players -- they feel some pressure," Backstrom said. "I try to think like the only pressure I feel is from myself to want to get better, play better. I'll do the same stuff I did last year."
Wild goalie led the NHL in goals-against average and save percentage in 2006-07.
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