The Columbus Blue Jackets finally completed a significant piece of their coaching staff.
Niklas Backstrom was officially hired on Wednesday as the next goaltending coach, taking over for Manny Legace whose contract was not renewed after last season.
An NHL veteran for 10 seasons, Backstrom had a very solid career, racking up a ledger of 196-144-50 in 394 starts and 413 games. He had 2.49 GAA, .914 SV%, and 28 career shutouts, primarily with the Minnesota Wild from 2006-2015 and one season with the Calgary Flames in 2015-16.
The lowdown on new #CBJ goalie coach Niklas Backstrom— Jeff Svoboda (@JacketsInsider) June 14, 2023
45 years old
From Helsinki, Finland
Played 10 seasons in the NHL with MIN/CGY
Had a 2.49 GAA and .914 SV% in 413 NHL games
Won two Olympic medals with Finland (silver, 2006; bronze, 2010)
2009 NHL All-Star
Prior to his NHL career taking off, Backstrom played internationally for nine years in Finland's top circuit (Liiga) with teams HIFK, SaiPa, and Karpat, and with AIK of the Swedish Hockey League in 2001-02. Following his time in the NHL, Backstrom returned to Liiga in 2016-17 to play with HIFK and Tappara before officially hanging up the skates.
After his lengthy playing career ended in 2019, Backstrom began working inside the Blue Jackets organization as the European-based goaltending development coach.
Now as the team's goaltending coach, he'll be tasked with getting Elvis Merzlikins back on track as the Latvian netminder enters year two of his five-year contract. The Blue Jackets surrendered a franchise-worst 329 goals last season, which was second worst in the league behind the Anaheim Ducks (335), and also an indictment of the defense in front of Merzlikins.
While this season will be Backstrom’s first as a goaltending coach at any point in his career, he brings a lot of knowledge about the craft.
As a rookie, he was part of the Wild’s 2006-07 team that won the William M. Jennings Trophy for allowing the fewest goals (191) in the season along with tandem partners, primarily Manny Fernandez and also Josh Harding. That rookie season was Backstrom's best in terms of GAA (1.97) and SV% (.929).
Merzlikins was statistically one of the worst goalies in the league last season with -20.02 GSAx last season, last among 107 goalies per MoneyPuck. As GSAx helps isolate the play of the goaltender, there are still plenty of factors leading into the final shot the goalie faces, such as the pass before that shot, where the shot was taken on the ice, and so forth. Merzlikins stopped fewer shots on average than he should have.
The upgraded defense should help limit the number of shots getting to the goalie as the Blue Jackets allowed 35.4 shots per game, second to worst in the league behind the Ducks (39.1).
“A good defense makes good goaltenders,” general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said last Sunday in Aaron Portzline’s article in The Athletic. "If you give up Grade A chance too much, there’s not gonna be too many goaltenders around this league that can make what we call the 10-bell saves all the time. The structure plays a role in it. We brought in a new coach.
"It takes a five-man unit to play well defensively, but that’s a big part of it. You don’t give up Grade A chances and your goaltender looks a lot better, let’s put it that way."
A lighter workload should help the goaltender feel at ease in the crease and the Jackets are hoping the additions of Ivan Provorov and Damon Severson are a big boost in that area.
If the defense can limit the shot quantity that Merzlikins has to face, that could help the goalie get his confidence back.
As Brian Hedger reported in The Columbus Dispatch on June 14, Backstrom hit on this topic.
"Every year is different and every year you start from zero," Backstrom said. "You look at (Merzlikins) and he’s done it. He’s really skilled, has good size and he's athletic. There’s a lot of great tools, so he’s a really good goalie. It happens with almost every player. It can go up and down during the career, so you just have to find the way back. You have to work hard every day and give everything you’ve got, and that’s what you have to tell yourself every day."
Backstrom's addition will also benefit backup Daniil Tarasov, who played one year in Liiga for Assat in 2018-19 and worked with Backstrom.
"I’ve seen those guys playing and I’ve seen those guys practicing," Backstrom said. "I know how good they are. When they’re at their best, they’re really good goalies. I’m really confident in that, but it’s going to be work every day. Every day you have to remind yourself that you start from scratch and you have to prove that you belong in the league. It’s a grind, but it’s fun. When you start getting close to the max level you can play, you can string some great games together and that’s a fun part of the game."
With a bolstered defense in town and now a new goaltending coach, the time is ticking for the Blue Jackets to realize their newfound potential.