Niklas Backstrom’s nine-year career with the Wild might be over.
The Wild’s all-time leader with 194 wins and 409 games has one year left on his contract, but the 37-year-old goalie last played on Jan. 13 and was scratched every game in the playoffs but one, when Darcy Kuemper was ill.
“We’ll sit down and take a look at the overall picture and see what makes sense,” General Manager Chuck Fletcher said Monday.
Fletcher likely doesn’t want to carry three goalies on the 23-man roster again. Kuemper has another year on his contract and can’t be sent to the minors without clearing waivers. With the team looking to re-sign Devan Dubnyk, Backstrom might be bought out.
He was signed to a multiyear contract at 35 years old, so the Wild could save one-third of Backstrom’s $4 million salary ($1.3 million) but be charged with his full $3.417 million cap hit. Fletcher first likely will try to trade him with the willingness of retaining some salary and cap charge.
“We’ve got a long way to go before we need to have any conversations like that,” Fletcher said.
In two years since being re-signed to a three-year, $10.25 million contract, Backstrom played 40 games, going 10-18-5 with a 3.03 goals-against average and .894 save percentage. He didn’t play another game after allowing six goals in a 7-2 loss at Pittsburgh on Jan. 13. Fletcher acquired Dubnyk the next day.
Backstrom is 194-142-50 with the Wild with a 2.48 goals-against average, .915 save percentage and 28 shutouts. He shared the NHL’s Jennings Trophy (lowest goals against) with Manny Fernandez in 2007, backstopped the Wild to a Northwest Division title in 2008 and was a Vezina Trophy finalist in 2009.
Josh Harding, the 30-year-old goalie who missed all season because of complications from multiple sclerosis after playing two games with Iowa, is expected to retire. His contract expires June 30.
“I wouldn’t want to speak for him, but he has bigger issues than just hockey,” Fletcher said.
Asked if he is OK having a 25-year-old Kuemper back up next year or would consider trading him, Fletcher said, “We don’t even know what our goaltenders will be at this point.”
Winger Jason Zucker broke his left thumb when he blocked a shot in Game 2 of the St. Louis series. He scored one goal in the next eight playoff games. Zucker said trainers numbed the thumb before every game.
“Pain-wise it wasn’t bad until the numbing wore off, but overall, I think the toughest part is once your thumb is numb, you can’t feel your stick very well, so stickhandling was a little bit tough,” Zucker said.
Winger Chris Stewart, who missed Games 3 and 4 of the Chicago series, separated his right shoulder when he crashed into the end boards after being tripped by Blackhawks defenseman Johnny Oduya in Game 2.
“I tried to [play]. I had nothing. It’s just frustrating,” Stewart said. “Toughest job in sport is watching. Wasn’t a storybook ending, but I’m still happy with the opportunity I had here.”
Defenseman Keith Ballard, who didn’t play since a Dec. 9 concussion (his fifth concussion in five years), hasn’t decided if he will keep playing. The veteran of 604 NHL games is still symptomatic.
“I’d love to play, but I’ve got to feel better first,” said Ballard, 32. “I don’t want to close the door and say, ‘Oh, I’m done,’ but I’m going to factor everything in and give it some time and see if I can get to a point where I can get on the ice and feel OK.”
No help in sight
The Iowa Wild was the worst team in the American Hockey League this past season one year after being the worst team in the Western Conference.
“Iowa was a disaster,” Fletcher said. “We have to get better. We have to look at everything there. That’s on me. They’ve supported us unbelievably well. Our attendance is top 10 in the league, and we haven’t been very good. They’ve given us more than we’ve given them.”
Fletcher is excited about Tyler Graovac, Gustav Olofsson and Zack Mitchell in Iowa, but most the Wild’s top prospects are still in junior hockey and college.