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Posted: Friday January 16, 2009 4:21PM; Updated: Sunday January 18, 2009 2:35AM
Allan Muir Allan Muir >
INSIDE THE NHL

A Wild idea: Deal Niklas Backstrom

Story Highlights

The struggling Wild are in dire need of an offensive spark to make the playoffs

With Marian Gaborik out, All-Star goalie Backstrom is the Wild's best trade bait

Red Wings and Capitals are likely suitors and Wild could turn to Josh Harding

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The Wild would be in good hands with Josh Harding (left) should they deal Backstrom, who will fetch a lot more on the market.
AP
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I'm not privy to any plans Minnesota GM Doug Risebrough might have made prior to the season, but I feel safe in suggesting that things haven't quite gone according to them.

Instead of contending for the Northwest title, Risebrough's Wild barely cling to the eighth seed in the Western Conference. Sure, the defense has been stellar -- in other news, most Minnesotans wish it were a bit warmer right about now -- but the offense he built boasts all the raging firepower of a wet cap gun.

And that's not all the fault of coach Jacques Lemaire's system. Outside of Mikko Koivu, who despite a nearly month-long slump is emerging as a sublime talent, Risebrough has saddled his coach with too many plodders, excised vital pieces (how lost does Pierre-Marc Bouchard look without departed free agent Brian Rolston?) and rushed too many young players into service before they were ready for prime time.

Hey, you can't beat child labor for the value, right?

And then there's the Gaborik Affair, a case study in asset bungling that seems destined to end with the brittle winger bolting as a free agent while the smartest man in town points at attendance figures to distract from the fact that he's been left holding the bag.

No need to dance around it. Risebrough's made his share of miscalculations, but he flat out blew it with Gaborik, failing either to sign the face of the franchise to a long-term deal early on or ship him out for the offensive reinforcements that could finally help lift this team out of a prolonged state of mediocrity. This is his mess, top to bottom. Still, amazingly, Risebrough might not be out of options.

He has one last chance to make an impact decision this season, something that can bolster the Wild's chances for the playoffs and set them up for a better future...and, maybe, secure his own job.

All he has to do is trade All-Star netminder Niklas Backstrom.

When a team relies overwhelmingly on its defense, it might seem counterintuitive to send packing the one player most responsible for keeping the plates in the air. Since joining the Wild in 2006, the Finnish vet has been the model of consistency, posting stats that consistently rank among the league's best. But there are three good reasons to cut ties with their No. 1 while his stock is at an all-time high.

First: His contract expires at the end of the season, making Backstrom eligible for unrestricted free agency. It's another blemish on Risebrough's record that this deal wasn't sewn up earlier because the goalie has likely played himself out of the Wild's budget. The team already has conducted preliminary talks with his agent, Don Baizley, but word is that he's looking for Henrik Lundqvist money, something in the $35 million range over five years. Fair, considering Backstrom's impact potential, but that might be too rich for Risebrough's thin blood -- the unbroken string of sell-outs at Xcel Energy Center notwithstanding.

Second: This is no knock on Backstrom, the drop-off in net might not be noticeable after his departure. Moving him to add some bang up front isn't a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul. Backstrom said it himself. "The big reason this franchise has been doing good the last eight years is the system. It's a good system. When everybody plays within it... it's tough to play against us."

Under the tutelage of goalie coach Bob Mason, backup Josh Harding has developed into a legitimate starting option. Sure, he has only one win in nine appearances this season, but the blame for that record falls squarely on stone-handed teammates who've offered up just eight goals of support in his six losses. Harding's certainly done his share of the heavy lifting, producing virtually identical numbers to Backstrom's (same .927 save percentage and a GAA of 2.26 that's just a scouche above his partner's 2.16).

Third: Risebrough really doesn't have any other cards to play. The rest of his assets have minimal trade value or are, in his words, untouchable.

Sure, Risebrough could sign Backstrom, making Harding the expendable asset. But if you stick with the 30-year-old Finn, you're giving up on the younger goalie (Harding's just 24) and you commit to moving a player who brings a less significant return. Excepting when the Leafs are bidding, there's about as much demand for backups with limited experience these days as there is for mortgage-backed securities. And by keeping the cheaper Harding on board, Risebrough frees up valuable cap space.

Backstrom himself might not bring in as lucrative a package as a healthy Gaborik, nor would he draw as lengthy a line of suitors. But as anyone who has tried to move an antique lampshade or their kid's old Happy Meals toys on eBay knows, it just takes two motivated bidders to run up the winning bid.

Fortunately, there are two contenders that might be interested in a significant upgrade at that position: Detroit and Washington.

The Wings might seem like an odd match. They already have a Stanley Cup-winner in Chris Osgood, and Ty Conklin offered up his third shutout in his last five starts on Thursday night. Isn't that duo good enough to backstop a title defense? There are doubters, at least outside the organization.

"Playing with that team, they're adequate," one Western Conference team official told SI.com. "Osgood won it with them before, but I don't think anyone would say he won it for them. You don't want to look foolish by criticizing the champs, but it's the one area where they look vulnerable."

Detroit might not have the right mix of assets to appeal to the Wild, and any deal would require some salary cap legerdemain to keep the Wings on the safe side of the accountants, but never underestimate the ability of Ken Holland to fill in any cracks he sees heading into the playoffs.

"He might have made his big move over the summer [signing free agent Marian Hossa]," the same team official said of Holland. "But he's the best in the business. If he can improve, he will."

Backstrom would likely be looked upon as a rental by Detroit, considering the contract concerns the Wings already face next season. That might make this deal more palatable for Wild fans, who then could pin their hopes on a Keith Tkachuk-like return next season. It's not out of the question, given Backstrom's fondness for the organization.

Washington GM George McPhee could compensate for his own off-season blunder -- allowing Cristobal Huet to leave and replacing him with the maddeningly inconsistent José Théodore -- and set up the Capitals as the favorites to emerge from the East with a proven option like Backstrom. Thomas Fleischmann, a left-winger with 15 goals (more than anyone on the Wild) despite playing third-line minutes with limited power play time, might be appealing as part of a package.

And given the rash of injured goalies around the league, the possibilities should make for an interesting six weeks in Minnesota. Of course, Risebrough could continue to do what he does best (insert your own gag about a fiddle here), but with the logjam that's building up around that last playoff spot, that final miscalculation might be the one that costs him his job.

Moving Backstrom before the deadline won't solve the Wild's offensive woes, but if handled correctly, it might give the team the boost it needs this year, and set it up for a less hardscrabble existence in the future.

Your Turn

What's your take? Should the Wild trade Niklas Backstrom? If you were the GM of your favorite team, who or what would you give up to get him? Click here and weigh in.

 
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