Yep, you know this by now. I know this by now. We all know it: The Minnesota Wild's season is lost right now. There's little hope.
This was the case last season, as the Wild's playoff odds plummeted to 3% about this time last season. But as we all know, the season was saved. Why? The goaltending got incredibly hot.
Do you have any confidence at all in that happening this season?
I don't. You don't. No one does. Because the goaltending this season has been the worst aspect of the Minnesota Wild. And with Niklas Backstrom too much in decline, Kuemper appearing too much in his own head to turn it around anytime soon, and no easy and palatable solution on the trade front, things are looking down.
But how on earth did this happen? The Wild have historically churned out, if not all-world goaltenders, certainly ones competent enough to not be the issue on their team. How could the Wild have possibly gotten to this situation where an otherwise good team was completely unravelled by their goaltending?
We're now going to take a look at six pivotal points that brought the Wild to where they are now.
June 19th, 2012: Minnesota Wild re-sign Josh Harding
A mere two weeks before Parise/Suter Day, the Wild gave Josh Harding a 3-year deal worth 5.7 million dollars. With Niklas Backstrom having just a year left on his 4 year, 24 million dollar contract, the Wild attempted to do one of two things with this move. 1) Ease the 28-year-old Harding, who had a good season the previous year, from the "Goalie of the Future" to the "Goalie of the Present" role. 2) Should Harding not be the best starting goaltender option, have him as a cheap option to bridge the Wild until such a time prospects Matt Hackett or Darcy Kuemper could take his place. A low-risk contract with moderate reward, many thought.
Did it work out? No. We'll get to why in a moment.
Late September, 2012: Josh Harding diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis
A month later, Harding would reveal the diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis, a disease that disrupts and damages the body's nervous system. Harding resolved to play with MS as long as he could, but outside of a very good stretch last season, the symptom flare-ups have just been too limiting. According to Michael Russo, the triggers for an attack of symptoms include heat and stress. Both of those are things that are just a part of life for an NHL goaltender.
While obviously, the bigger and more meaningful concern involves Harding as a person, fighting this illness, there's no doubt that Harding's illness has limited the flexibility and quality of the Wild's goaltending. Neither Harding nor Fletch can be blamed, as the contract they signed was in good faith, and with the best information they had available. The Wild just happened to be collateral damage in a much bigger tragedy.
April 3rd, 2013: Wild trade Goalie Matthew Hackett, Johan Larsson, and two draft picks for Jason Pominville
The 2013 trade deadline saw the Wild fighting for a playoff spot, even with the additions of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter on the team.
Did it work out? The Pominville trade? Yes, it did work. It was a high price to give up, but the acquisition of Pominville has been a positive for the Wild. It's easily arguable that without Pominville, the Wild don't make the playoffs either last year, or the year previous.
The real question is whether Matt Hackett was the correct goalie to ship out, or whether Darcy Kuemper would've been the better choice. The answer to that is "Probably". While we can't know for sure how Hackett would have continued to develop in the Wild's system, we do know that Hackett has had a very rough time since leaving Minnesota. Last season, he put up an .898 Sv% in Rochester (AHL) before suffering a knee injury he's yet to return from. Kuemper has had a very rough 2014-15 season, but he did experience some success with the Wild last year that gives some hope Kuemper could be the answer for the Wild in net.
June 3rd, 2013: Antti Raanta agrees to terms with the Chicago Blackhawks
The Summer of 2013 saw the Wild pursuing the possibility of parting with goaltender Niklas Backstrom. Antti Raanta represented their first try at bringing in someone new. While the Wild didn't seem prepared to hang their hat entirely on the 24-year old Finnish goalie being "The Guy" in Minnesota, they badly wanted to acquire him. Raanta had an incredible season in the SM-Liiga, and the Wild had hoped that he could be a guy to come into camp and compete for an NHL spot.
Did it work out? While the Wild would have been correct in not handing the reins to Raanta right away (His first North American season saw him play 25 games with an .897 Sv%), they would certainly have appreciated the depth that Raanta would provide them right now. Raanta has been solid in the AHL since arriving to North America, and this year is performing quite well in the NHL, with a Save% of .934 in 10 games.
You know who this didn't work out for? Raanta. If he was betting on Corey Crawford playing his way out of Chicago's crease, he lost, as mere months later, Crawford signed a 6 year, $36 million dollar extension and has performed well. He'd likely have the starting job in Minnesota by now, and playing behind the best shot-suppression defense in the league would do well for his numbers. Both sides should be bitter about this.
June 23rd, 2013: Los Angeles trades Johnathan Bernier to Toronto for Ben Scrivens, Matt Frattin, and a second-round pick
This is totally inconsequential to the Wild, until you remember that the Wild were also pursuing Bernier in a trade. At the time, LA was rumored to be looking for a left-winger and a backup goalie. Would Zucker and Kuemper have been available in a trade? Would Fletcher have balked at that price, or have asked for the inclusion of another Kings prospect? Did Scrivens and Frattin represent an upgrade on that package? We can't know. What we do know is: The Wild wanted Bernier, and for whatever reason, struck out.
Did it work out? No. The Leafs are tracking to (once again) be out of the post-season, but they definitely don't have any problems in net, as Bernier has stopped 92% of the roughly over 9,000 shots he's seen in 85 games. The Wild would be thrilled to have a .910 Sv% in that time, and a .920 performance from Bernier would likely have them solidly in a playoff spot.
Would this have been worth the price the Wild had to give up, assuming it was Zucker-Kuemper? It would be hard to swallow, given that Zucker's scoring numbers are secretly great this year, but the Wild have forward depth in their system, and Bernier would have solved the #1 issue with this team. This was a missed opportunity.
June 24th, 2013: Wild re-sign Niklas Backstrom to a 3 year, 10+ million dollar deal
In case you had any doubt at all that the Wild were hot after Bernier, they turned around and signed Niklas Backstrom the day after Bernier was traded. Ouch. Way to telegraph what your second choice was, Chuck. Or third choice, if you count the Wild also inquiring about Marc-Andre Fleury earlier that summer.
Anyway, the Wild resolved themselves to being stuck with Backstrom, and signed the 35-year-old goaltender to a 3 year deal worth ~$10.2 million dollars. Backstrom's numbers had taken a dip during the lockout-shortened season, but most assumed it was largely due to over-use down the stretch, and not necessarily a major decline in skills. The price appeared relatively good, as well, as a ~3.4M cap hit seemed much less crippling than the $6M price tag Backstrom carried around with him the previous 4 years.
Did it work out?
Backstrom has suffered both injuries and a decline in skills. In a 13-14 season where Harding, Kuemper, and Ilya Bryzgalov managed to turn in very solid performances, Backstrom struggled while suffering an injury that would eventually sideline him for the rest of the season. The Wild tried to trade him over the summer, but found that potential takers for a 36-year-old, injured goalie were non-existent, and his No-Move Clause means he can't be sent to Iowa.
As it stands, the Wild are stuck with Backstrom until the end of the season, and even a buyout of him at the end of this season means some gross residue of his too-long, too-expensive deal is going to stick on the Wild's cap for two more seasons. Settling for Backstrom in 2013 represents arguably the worst move of the Chuck Fletcher era, and is a huge reason for this lost season.
November 11th, 2014: Darcy Kuemper named the starter vs. Montreal
This seems a weird thing to include on this list, as it's a fairly innocuous decision. After a hot start, Darcy Kuemper had come back to earth a bit, and Mike Yeo wanted to get him back into form against the Canadiens. No big deal, right?
Did it work out? Even if it was the right decision at the time, the Wild would no doubt like to have this one back. Kuemper did not get on track that night- allowing 4 goals on 31 shots- and playing in that game meant the Wild could no longer send Kuemper to the AHL without passing him through waivers. Kuemper managed to limp to the end of the month with a .900 Sv%, including good games against Dallas, Philadelphia, and Tampa Bay. But since December? Well, in December, Kuemper posted an .885 Sv%, and an .890 in January before being injured.
The Wild are now stuck with no flexibility. They couldn't sign a free agent like Ilya Bryzgalov, who played well for the Wild last season. They can't make a trade without risking losing Kuemper. They appear to be stuck right now. Stuck with awful goaltending until Kuemper can turn it around.
Not all of these things are Chuck Fletcher's fault. Harding's MS diagnosis was uncontrollable, and set the table for much of what we can see today. But also occurring at this time were obvious, sorely missed opportunities (Acquiring Raanta, Bernier), poor decisions (the Backstrom contract), and smaller opportunities for value that have been missed (acquiring a goalie like Jaroslav Halak or James Reimer at last year's deadline, perhaps?). Allowing the goalie situation to be in this mess is arguably the biggest black mark on Chuck Fletcher's career, and is now overshadowing a lot of good work he did to get this team to the respectable level it should be at today.