This is a post about the goalies, so that makes the headline a stroke of genius. Yes, I am a wizard, and I have always been a wizard. Deal with it.
For the past 2 to 3 years, Minnesota Wild fans have been extremely comfortable, not to mention excited with their goaltending core. And they should have.
The Wild had a huge amount of talent all the way from the NHL level to the juniors. Niklas Backstrom was a safe choice for the number one spot with the Wild, while the immensely talented Josh Harding showed signs of being a potential number one goaltender in the future but battled injuries.
Then there were the kids from the 2009 and 2010 NHL Entry Drafts. Darcy Kuemper, in his last season with WHL's Red Deer Rebels, was selected as the league's best goaltender, as well as the best player.
At the same time, Matt Hackett was posting decent enough numbers with OHL's Plymouth Whalers, and almost backstopped the Houston Aeros (R.I.P.) to a Calder Cup in his first season with the Wild's old AHL affiliate.
Of course, Hackett was traded to the Sabres as a part of a deal that got Jason Pominville to wear a Wild jersey for the first time in his career. Losing Hackett was not something anybody was hoping for, but if the Wild were to trade one of their goalie prospect, Hackett was the right choice.
And then there's the best young goalie (in my mind) that the Wild have in their system. Johan Gustafsson, a 6th round pick from the 2010 draft. The 6'2" goalie from Koping, Sweden. This kid is the real deal.
Just by looking at the stats, Gustafsson is pretty much at the same level, if not better than Kuemper right now. Much like Kuemper, Gustafsson has improved his stats constantly. Well, was improving, until he posted a 1,68 GAA and .932 save% during the 2011-2012 season. Although to be fair, his GAA only dropped to 1,70, while his save% climbed up to .933. How will he ever get his career back on track?
But when you see this kid play, he is every bit as good as the stats will tell you. He's not a big goalie, but he moves so, so well. He's not an aggressive goalie, like Tuukka Rask for example, but he's an active goalie. He's aware of his surroundings all the time, and plays the angles perfectly.
The subtle little push forward that Gustafsson does, right before the puck leaves a shooter's stick, makes him a bit bigger than what he really is. Then there's the way he moves when he goes down on his knees. As smooth as any goalie the Wild have ever had, if not better. He's a good stickhandler and is a reliable performer in high-pressure situations.
So, how does this save the Wild any money or cap space? If you ask me (nobody will, which is the right move), the Wild should probably let Backstrom go unless he is ready to be paid a lot less. The Wild could, in theory, make a real effort to sign a guy like Nabokov for 2-3 million and let Kuemper and Gustafsson compete for the backup role. Hell, if Harding has the MS under control, let him start as the number one.
As much as I would love to see the Wild become contenders as fast as possible, the harsh reality is, they're probably not going to do it next year either. Not with this salary cap, not with so many missing pieces. But that's just me.
In my scenario, either Kuemper or Gustafsson gets some valuable NHL experience, and the other one gets to play a million games in the AHL. Purely from the goaltending standpoint, this is the scenario you want. But do the Wild want this? No, I don't think so. But you never know what Backstrom decides to do. And that decision will be a huge one for the Wild.
PS. If you're wondering why I'm not talking anything about Stephen Michalek here; The guy is like Anton Khudobin, but can't control the chaos he creates. He's miles away before he's got at shot at an AHL job.