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(Karl B DeBlaker)
(Karl B DeBlaker)

Gustavsson follows Backstrom's lead Add to ...

Eight games into his NHL career, the Monster has lived up to his billing.

And if Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke is looking for a vision of the future with Jonas Gustavsson between the pipes, he may very well get a glimpse of it tonight against the Minnesota Wild.

Three years ago, the Wild were in the same boat as the Maple Leafs, looking to Europe for depth in goal at a reasonable price. Then-GM Doug Risebrough and his staff eventually unearthed Niklas Backstrom - an undrafted, 10-year veteran of Finland's top league - and offered him a $750,000 (U.S.) contract to try and win a spot in training camp.

As luck would have it, projected backup Josh Harding tweaked his groin in preseason, opening the door for Backstrom to start the year in the NHL. A few months later, when No.1 Manny Fernandez injured his knee, the unheralded Finn grabbed the reins and didn't let go, posting the top save percentage in the NHL as a 29-year-old rookie.

Still far from a household name, Backstrom nonetheless finished third in Vézina Trophy voting last season, and has a .923 save percentage over the past three seasons - better than that of Martin Brodeur, Roberto Luongo or any of the league's other goaltending luminaries.

It's been quite a ride.

"Coming over [from Europe]was difficult, but on the other hand, it was like living a dream," Backstrom said yesterday. "I played a lot of hockey without getting a chance at the NHL."

Should he get the start, tonight will mark Backstrom's first game at the Air Canada Centre, and he'll tend the crease while staring down a netminder who could very well be his younger, slimmer protégé.

Gustavsson has had a similarly charmed start to his NHL career, posting a 3-2-3 record and grabbing his team's No.1 role only 15 games into the season.

Both men are part of a larger trend in which the number of Europeans tending goal in the NHL has risen substantially over the past decade. Last season, for example, 13 European goalies played 40 or more games, up from only four 10 years earlier. Based on early results, that number could be ever higher this season.

Part of the reason for the trend, according to NHL executives, is goaltenders are the most difficult players to draft and develop in a short period of time. A European netminder such as Gustavsson, who has had an additional four or five years to develop in a top league, is far more of a sure thing.

"If you lack goaltending depth right now as an organization, you can get a 23- or a 26-year-old who you've watched play at a high level for two or three years [by going to Europe]" said former Wild assistant GM Tom Lynn, who, along with scout Thomas Steen, targeted Backstrom as a potential NHL-calibre goaltender in 2006. "It's difficult to get a goalie - outside of the first round [of the draft]- who's going to make an impact, but one place to look for that is Europe because they might develop later. For whatever reason. Sometimes, there are other goalies ahead of them and they weren't seen until they're 21. You get guys who are good goalies who never got the opportunity to show that until the goalies ahead of them move on."

Since Backstrom's signing, teams have ramped up their pursuit of free-agent Europeans at the position, with Jonas Hiller (Anaheim Ducks), Erik Ersberg (Los Angeles Kings) and Antti Niemi (Chicago Blackhawks) all playing in the NHL this season. The increased interest came to the fore this summer, when Gustavsson was one of the most-sought free agents - at one point scouted by all 30 NHL teams and, eventually, won over by Burke.

For his part, Backstrom credits goaltenders such as Dominik Hasek and Miikka Kiprusoff with opening NHL teams' eyes to the quality of netminders being developed overseas. He added, despite all of the recent success stories, there is also an adjustment period for every European coming over - one Gustavsson is likely still going through now.

"In Europe, the rink is bigger, so you put the rebound into the corner and you have time to get up and get ready for the next shot," Backstrom said. "Here, you don't have the time, they throw it right back at you.

"The first couple weeks, I didn't know what to do. Everything was so fast. It's a big challenge."

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