Even for a defense-driven team like the Minnesota Wild, good goaltending is a coveted commodity.
On the day before the NHL's trade deadline, the Wild signed All-Star goalie Niklas Backstrom through 2013 with a four-year contract extension worth $24 million.
Backstrom would have been a free agent at the end of this season, but he'll make $6 million annually to stay.
"It's sort of like a second dream come true, after getting a shot to play in the NHL," Backstrom said Tuesday in Vancouver, British Columbia, after the morning skatearound in preparation for the game against the Canucks that night.
The 31-year-old Backstrom came to Minnesota without much notice from around the league, signing on in the summer of 2006 as a backup candidate to Manny Fernandez after spending his entire career before that in his native Finland.
An injury to Josh Harding in training camp created a roster spot, and when Fernandez was hurt a couple of months into that season Backstrom took over; appearing in 41 games, he led the NHL in both save percentage (.929) and goals against average (1.97).
He signed a two-year deal for $6.2 million in the summer of 2007, paving the way for the Wild to trade Fernandez, and he's been the regular starter ever since. Still, the Wild risked losing him on the open market for no compensation without an extension in place. Trading Backstrom in the midst of an intense competition for the final few playoff spots in the Western Conference was risky, too, but sealing the deal just ahead of the deadline was not a coincidence, either.
Backstrom, ever the low-key, level-headed presence in the locker room and between the posts, acknowledged Tuesday that his uncertain status has been on his mind for months. But he said it wasn't a factor once he was on the ice.
"I didn't let it bother me. I didn't want to have any thoughts about it," he said. "I was thinking, 'Just play as well as I can and just worry about the hockey thing."'
He brought a record of 28-18-4 with a franchise-record six shutouts, a 2.24 goals against average and a .925 save percentage into Tuesday's game. Backstrom is the only current goalie whose statistics rank in the league's top five in each of those four categories.
"I have improved my game a lot during these two-and-a-half years here, and think I can be better in the future," Backstrom said. "Our core is young and getting better and improving every day, and we're a good team now with a chance to win every game out there."
That, according to general manager Doug Risebrough, was the biggest selling point for Backstrom.
"He's always been very positive about the fan base and about the place. It's more, 'What's the plan?"' Risebrough said in a phone interview.
Though the Wild are currently thin on NHL-ready prospects and struggling to find consistent scoring with star Marian Gaborik out for at least another two weeks, the plan to chase a championship is certainly bolstered by Backstrom's new contract. In 127 of his 144 career starts, Backstrom has allowed three goals or less.
"I think I would say most teams feel that you have to have good goaltending to be successful," Risebrough said. "It's a critical piece. ... When you look at Nik's brief history with the Wild, it's pretty phenomenal what he's accomplished. Knowing the maturity level and knowing the passion he has for the game, you're going to get that consistently over the length of the contract."