For the first time in franchise history, the Minnesota Wild faces an offseason full of questions regarding the uncertainty in net. Niklas Backstrom is old and injured, Josh Harding is superbly talented, yet his battle with Multiple Sclerosis remains a major question mark, and youngster Darcy Kuemper is on the cusp of claiming the No. 1 role for his own. What the team does to address the situation this offseason could hinge on Kuemper's level of preparedness heading into September's training camp.
When Kuemper was drafted with the 161st overall pick in 2009, many within the fan base thought his selection was more of an afterthought--covering the bases, as it were--after all, the Wild had already selected Matt Hackett in the third round at 77th overall. Five years later, Kuemper spent significant time as Minnesota's stud No. 1 goalie, while Hackett labored for an abysmal Buffalo Sabres organization. Though it's too early to say for sure, it appears Wild GM Chuck Fletcher made the right choice in which young goaltender to part with as part of the package exchanged for three-time 30-goal scorer Jason Pominville.
Kuemper has played all of 32 career regular season games with the big club, but he's already proven himself to be one heck of a young tender. At 6'5" and 205-pounds, the young native of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan has a unique package of size, talent, skill and athletic ability, something that is highly irregular for a netminder of his size. Kuemper has used this to his advantage, dominating the Canadian major junior leagues, the ECHL and the AHL in impressive fashion while collecting numerous awards and recognitions at nearly every level of play he's faced so far.
In 26 regular season games with Minnesota this season, Kuemper displayed that skill set in confident fashion, posting a 12-8-4 record, a .915 save percentage, a 2.43 goals against average and two shutouts as a 23-year old rookie. In addition, after Ilya Bryzgalov was pulled in Game Two of the Wild's first round playoff series with the Colorado Avalanche, Kuemper stepped in beautifully with a 3-1-1 record, a .913 save percentage, a 2.03 goals against average and a shutout before sustaining a season-ending concussion in the second period of Game Seven.
With a successful season in the books, Kuemper is now a restricted free agent set to command a one-way deal. Considering the uncertainty surrounding the aging, injury-plagued Backstrom, and the MS stricken Harding, Kuemper likely has the inside track on the starting role in St. Paul, something he is probably all too keenly aware of. However, while Kuemper's been successful in a limited showing, there's no knowing whether or not he'll be able to withstand the rigors of being a No. 1 NHL goaltender for a full season at the tender (no pun intended) age of 24.
Minnesota needs another option and, at this point, neither one of Backstrom or Harding look like viable options. It's a good bet Kuemper is the man between the pipes, but he'll need help as the season goes on, and the Wild may have to look elsewhere. Harding is untradeable, and Backstrom will probably have to be unloaded for peanuts, but that's the likeliest route Fletcher will have to take.
There are solid goalies available in free agency--Ryan Miller, Jonas Hiller and Bryzgalov among others--yet Fletcher has suggested better value may be found on the trade market. Minnesota doesn't need an established, in-his-prime franchise netminder; it needs a great backup that can play solid No. 1 minutes if need be.
Kuemper is already an incredible young netminder to watch at age 23 (now 24)--imagine how good he'll be in five years when he hits his prime. That's a scary thought.