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The Blue Jackets’ search for a new goaltending coach resulted in the promotion of former NHL goalie Niklas Backstrom as Manny Legace’s replacement.

Speculation about the hire began to spread last week, but the team didn’t make it official until Wednesday.

More: 5 offseason moves that could give the Columbus Blue Jackets’ reset plan a boost

Backstrom, 45, joined the Blue Jackets in 2019 as a European based goaltending development coach. Sandwiched between stints in Finland and one season in Sweden, Backstrom played 10 years in the NHL for the Minnesota Wild and Calgary Flames.

His next stop in the NHL comes with a new role and the daunting task of helping Elvis Merzlikins rebound from two rough seasons. Here are three things to know about the Blue Jackets’ new goalie coach:

Niklas Backstrom excelled in lengthy playing career before joining Columbus Blue Jackets

Backstrom, who’s Finnish, is only four years removed from the end of a playing career that spanned 23 years and three professional leagues, starting and ending in Finland’s top circuit (Liiga).

Aside from his final few years with the Wild and Flames, Backstrom put up excellent numbers in Finland and Minnesota. Prior to signing with the Wild in 2006, Backstrom spent nine years playing for HIFK and Karpat in Finland’s top league (Liiga) plus one season (2001-02) with AIK in the Swedish Hockey League.

His play garnered numerous postseason accolades in his home country before his arrival in North America, where his success continued. As a rookie with the Wild in 2006-07, Backstrom won the William Jennings Trophy for fewest goals allowed while posting the NHL’s best goals-against average (1.97) and save percentage (.929).

Backstrom played 409 games for the Wild over nine seasons and finished with a 194-142-50 record, 2.48 GAA, .915 save percentage and 28 shutouts. His career in Finland spanned 12 seasons, including three following his departure from the NHL in 2016. Backstrom went 150-77-40 with a 2.11 GAA and .928 save percentage in his Liiga career, posting 35 shutouts in 287 games.

The Blue Jackets are counting on that success to translate into his new role tutoring Merzlikins and Daniil Tarasov.

Niklas Backstrom faces big challenge as Columbus Blue Jackets’ goaltending coach

Backstrom wasted no time starting the next chapter of his career after his final season playing for Tappara in Finland (2018-19). The Blue Jackets quickly hired him as their European goaltending development coach and he immediately began working with Tarasov, who played in Liiga with Assat in 2019-20.

Backstrom also spend a year scouting for the Blue Jackets in 2021-22 before returning to the European development coach position this past season, where he kept tabs on undersized Russian goalie Sergei Ivanov of SKA St. Petersburg in the Kontinental Hockey League.

Backstrom has never held the position of goaltending coach. That combined with the Blue Jackets needing Merzlikins to rebound make Backstrom’s role vital. He’s replacing Legace, who was also promoted in 2018 from the Cleveland Monsters as the replacement for Ian Clark ― a tenured goalie coach who signed with the Vancouver Canucks.

Legace, also a former NHL goalie, spent six seasons in the Blue Jackets’ minor league system prior to his promotion ― including the last three as the Cleveland Monsters’ goaltending coach. Legace and Merzlikins developed a close friendship after the Latvian goalie arrived in 2019 from Switzerland, but their relationship might’ve become a road block the past two years.

Merzlikins attended a wedding celebration for Legace’s daughter July 4, 2021 at the coach’s home in Novi, Michigan when a fireworks incident led to the tragic death of Matiss Kivlenieks, his close friend and former Blue Jackets goalie. Merzlikins and Legace were both shaken.

Could a new coaching voice help Merzlikins rebound?

That’s Backstrom’s job now.

Niklas Backstrom tasked with helping Daniil Tarasov develop for Columbus Blue Jackets

Merzlikins has four more years left on a contract that carries a $5.4 million charge against the NHL salary cap That’s what makes “fixing” him such an urgent priority.

A second part of the Blue Jackets’ goaltending picture is every bit as important and impossible to miss.

Tarasov, 24, has become a 6-foot-5 question mark in the Columbus net thanks to multiple injuries the past two years ― including a hip labrum repair in February 2022. He has also dealt with multiple knee issues, so figuring out a way to keep Tarasov healthy is atop Backstrom’s “to do” list.

More: Blue Jackets add defenseman Damon Severson from the Devils in sign-and-trade deal

The Jackets are also in a pickle with Tarasov’s contract.

He costs just $1.05 million against the salary cap, but now requires waivers for an AHL assignment. There’s no guarantee a talented 6-5 goalie won’t be snapped up by another team and there’s also no guarantee Tarasov’s ready for the NHL backup gig.

The Blue Jackets may have no choice. If they want to keep him, it will be Backstrom’s job to help Tarasov develop more consistency while not playing much behind Merzlikins.

bhedger@dispatch.com

@BrianHedger

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This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: 3 things to know about Niklas Backstrom coaching Blue Jackets goalies



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