Much has been made of the Minnesota Wild's goalie situation last season. With 5, that's right, 5 net minders to start for the Wild in the 2013-14 season, one would be led to believe that only rolling with 3 could put the Wild in a bit of a sticky wicket at some point. To make it through a season with just 3 goalies could be considered a major win for the training staff as well. A look at the depth between the pipes has some clamoring for the Wild to re-sign veteran goalie Ilya Bryzgalov for another run with the club. It also has many questioning how much veteran Niklas Backstrom has left in the tank, how much of a season Josh Harding can be a reliable asset, and can RFA Darcy Kuemper step up to the plate and knock one out of the park?
With just about any team in the NHL, there are always going to be issues of depth at certain positions. The Wild are no different. With goalies however, things seem to be lining up for a season with less questions and more stability in net. It's definitely not easy to predict injuries, or if Josh Harding's MS will become a factor again this season. By all accounts, things are looking much better for the Wild and General Manager Chuck Fletcher seems pretty confident in who he has protecting the blue paint as well as the possibility of picking up a net minder at some point this season.
"There's still some quality goaltenders out there. Ilya's out there and a few others, so there's that type of option out there. But we're happy with the quality of our goaltending. When guys have been healthy, they've performed well. Darcy [Kuemper] also showed some glimpses of what we hope he'll become, so we're comfortable with those three goaltenders."
But we've all heard these words before. It seems for the last few seasons the Wild have had a lot of question marks in net. Injuries and illness played such a large roll in the Wild's goaltending situation last season, it is nearly impossible to look past the potential for disaster peaking it's ugly head around the corner again in 2014-2015. Backstrom's abdominal issue plagued him all of last season as well as a concussion courtesy of Nazem Kadri, which all came to a head with season-ending abdominal surgery in February. Backstrom, simply put, was not himself all season.
Harding didn't see any playing time in 2014 due to complications with and adjustment to his MS medication and Darcy Kuemper was sidelined twice due to concussions last season. Fletcher takes all this into account for sure, but it's not something you can really worry about due to the unpredictable nature of these things.
"People always ask if I'm worried about it, and I'm not worried about it. You never know what's going to happen. Injuries can happen to anybody and certainly you can't predict things, but guys are healthy and typically when Backstrom and Harding are healthy, they play well. If something happens, like any player at any position, we'll react. There's always a way to react if you need to, but at this point, we're comfortable with our situation."
Darcy Kuemper is currently looking to cash in on a stellar half-season, and solidify his spot with the big club in the coming season. It's really is too bad for him that we have a log-jam of necessity between the pipes. While Fletcher and Kuemper will likely find a deal that is fair for both parties, it will also likely mean the Wild will become a 3-headed monster guarding the wickets.
Both Harding and Backstrom have plenty to prove in the upcoming season. Backstrom will be looking to put a terrible season in his rear-view mirror and get back to the steady form we all know and love. Harding is facing a contract year, and will be looking to show that not only can he keep up the stellar pace he showed last season, but he'll want to prove that MS will not define his career.
There is no reason to believe both players cannot make it through a season and post the kinds of numbers we've seen both of them accomplish in their careers. While questions will remain, best practice is to give these guys the benefit of the doubt and not be too willing to pull the plug on their careers. They have both earned that much.
Kuemper has shown he has the kind of talent to someday be a great number 1 goalie in this league, but he's still unseasoned and struggled mightily in his initial call-up early last season and had some issues staying out of the quiet room during games late in the season. He needs to do a better job of protecting himself while not losing his edge protecting the cage.
When it's all said and done, I'm fairly confident that Harding will be able to battle back his demons after struggling with them the better part of the past two seasons. Backstrom has been on the shelf for awhile, and should be ready to go come October. Kuemper has to bide his time this season and wait for the crease to get a little less crowded before he will start seeing time regularly between the pipes. If the Wild are going to roll 3 goalies this season, it should be Harding and Backstrom as the 1A and 1B and Kuemper as the 2. Managing their playing time wont be easy, but this is what Coach Yeo gets paid to do.