Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom said that he didn’t keep an elbow injury, which ultimately required surgery, a secret in order to prevent being bought out of the final year of his contract.
Backstrom is preparing for his 10th training camp, spending nearly four hours daily on the ice in Edina.
Backstrom, 37, initially hyperextended his right elbow between the post and a player in his exhibition debut in Winnipeg last Sept. 22. He aggravated the injury in March.
“When I got hurt in Winnipeg, I talked to the trainers, and especially the second time I got hurt, I met a couple times a week with the doctors,” Backstrom said this week. “There was a lot of communication. They thought it was tennis elbow, but when I started having [numbness holding a cellphone or driving], they knew right away it was something else.
“I saw our doctor and another specialist and I had surgery in probably two days. It caught myself and everyone off guard because it was something else than we expected.”
After acquiring Devan Dubnyk in January, coach Mike Yeo alternated Backstrom and Darcy Kuemper as backups during the season’s second half in order to show respect to Backstrom, the Wild’s all-time winningest goalie. If the Wild shut him down sooner, perhaps he would have been medically cleared to be bought out in June or July.
“I didn’t know he was hurt at all,” Yeo said recently. “That’s not a shot at anybody, but I didn’t know that there was something like that going on.”
Backstrom said part of his triceps tore and was pressing on a nerve that disturbed his fingers.
“It’s the first time an injury scared me that it would affect my life after hockey and pretty greatly affect it,” Backstrom said. “But we’re close to being in the clear now. Everything’s going really good, so that risk shouldn’t be there anymore.”
Backstrom met with doctors Friday. All went well, he said, and he expects to be on the ice when training camp opens next week.
It was the second year in a row the Wild couldn’t buy out Backstrom because he was hurt. It was the fourth consecutive season and at least the sixth time in seven years he underwent surgeries for maladies including a torn labrum in his hip, two sports hernias and an ankle.
Dubnyk and Darcy Kuemper are the No. 1 and 2 goalies heading into this season. Dubnyk started 38 consecutive games and 39 of the final 40 last season. The Wild wants Kuemper to start his share this season so Dubnyk can get breaks.
“We’re not going to play Devan every game this year,” Yeo said.
Yeo said it’s “fair to say” he doesn’t want Kuemper and Backstrom splitting one cage in practice the way they did in last season’s second half. So it’s unclear if Backstrom is on the team how the Wild will manage things.
Will he skate before practice some days? Will he even travel?
“I don’t know if I can worry too much about what happens tomorrow,” Backstrom said. “I’m just focusing on today and make sure I get the work in. Sometimes it would be easy to get distracted and think about a lot of things, but I don’t think that’s going to help you.”
Backstrom cannot be sent to the minors without his permission, so the Wild’s options are limited: Carry three goalies, meaning the Wild would be have one fewer forward or defenseman than normal; trade Backstrom; or assign him to a team in Europe that he can perhaps latch onto.
Because Backstrom didn’t start 25 games last season and finish in the top 15 in one of three statistical categories, the Wild is permitted to trade Backstrom to one of 15 teams he has approved.
Backstrom is due $4 million this season with a $3.417 salary cap charge. Even if the Wild retained up to 50 percent of his salary and cap hit, that’s still a hefty price for an oft-injured goalie.
If the Wild assigned Backstrom to a team in Europe (Backstrom says he doesn’t yet have anything lined up), General Manager Chuck Fletcher said the Wild would free up a roster spot and get about $100,000 in cap relief.
“But what happens if you lose a goalie for the year? Then what do you do?” said Fletcher, who has dealt with several twists and turns with goaltender health since becoming Wild GM in 2009.
The Wild’s other professionally signed goalies are minor league rookies Brody Hoffman and Stephen Michalek, leaving the team without the type of experienced minor-leaguer who usually serves as an emergency call-up.
In the meantime, Backstrom was back at Edina’s Braemar Arena on Wednesday putting in the work even though he has no clue how much he’ll play, if he’ll play at all or even if he’ll remain on the only NHL team he has ever known.
“It’s a long career. You want to end it on the right note,” Backstrom said. “That’s what motivates you the most.”