The Minnesota Wild have a goaltender problem. No, it’s not like you think. Devan Dubnyk appears to be just fine, and both goalies behind him on the roster in Darcy Kuemper and Alex Stalock aren’t injured either. Dubnyk is a fine goaltender, and so was Niklas Backstrom in his heyday. Dwayne Roloson is a name from Wild nostalgia and was solid as well as he and another goalie from Wild lore Manny Fernandez combined to be a formidable tandem. The common theme among those names though are that they were either free agent signings or acquired via trade. The Wild hasn’t drafted and developed an upper-echelon goaltender in their entire 16 year history.
The first goalies to appear in a Wild uniform were Jamie McLennan and Fernandez. McLennan was picked in the expansion draft, while Fernandez was brought over from the Dallas Stars in exchange for 2000 3rd round pick, and a 2002 4th round pick. Both had mild success with the Wild with McLennan getting traded after just two seasons.
The Wild hadn’t even drafted a goaltender until it drafted Josh Harding in 2002. This was during the era of the NHL draft that featured nine rounds rather than the seven we’re used to nowadays. Harding was also the highest selected goaltender by the Wild in franchise history. Selected in the second round of the 2002 draft at number 38, Harding would become the closest thing the Wild has come to drafting and developing a number one goalie before he had to retire early due to complications with multiple sclerosis.
Harding began his NHL career post lock-out of the mid 2000’s. He played eight seasons - all with Minnesota - and had his best season in 2013-14, the season he announced that he was suffering from MS. Harding’s career had taken awhile to develop as he had to battle Fernandez, then Backstrom for most of his career, not to mention a devastating knee injury in which he tore both the ACL and MCL during a preseason game that kept him out for the entire 2010-11 season. In 2013-14, his .933 save percentage catapulted the Wild to a 20-11-5 record through December 17th, before he took a break to make a change to his MS regimen. Harding returned for two more losses to end the 2013 calendar year and never played for the Minnesota Wild again.
Harding never was able to live up to his potential whether it was fair or not.
The Risebrough Errors
The Wild’s goalie drafting philosophy has been peculiar at best. For the rest of the Doug Risebrough era, the goalie drafting is even more obscure.
- Barry Brust, 2002 3rd rd (73rd overall)
- Miroslav Kopriva, 2003 6th rd (138th overall)
- Anton Khudobin, 2004 7th rd (206th overall)
- Kristofer Westblom, 2005 3rd rd (65th overall)
- Niko Hovinen, 2006 5th rd (132nd overall)
None of those players, aside from Khudobin, has played a single game in the NHL. Khudobin has 100 career games at the NHL-level over seven seasons - only six with the Wild - and is considered more of a career AHLer with the ability to play on an injury re-call if needed.
The Current Era
Chuck Fletcher took over the Wild in 2009 after Risebrough was dismissed. Seeing that the cupboard was so beyond bare that not even the cockroaches came around looking for crums, Fletcher drafted two goalies in the 2009 draft. Matt Hackett was picked 77th overall in the third round and Darcy Kuemper was selected at 161 in the sixth round.
Both goalies were pegged as the future, and mostly played well in the Wild farm system, until it came time for Chuck Fletcher and the Wild to make a decision. That decision came in the form of a trade. Hackett was used as a trade chip to acquire Jason Pominville, essentially choosing Kuemper over the third rounder.
Hackett played a total of 29 games before busting out in the 2015 season. Kuemper? He’s currently backing up Dubnyk on the Wild, but has only managed 34 more NHL games than Hackett. Their career save percentages are similar, and while Kuemper has shown signs of being dominant at times, he’s never been able to put it all together and rise to the top. It was his net in 2014-15, but inconsistency and a drop in confidence forced Fletcher’s hand in making a move for Dubnyk.
The development of Fletcher’s other picks since is still in question, though. Johan Gustafsson has returned to Sweden after struggling mightily in the AHL. Stephen Michalek played the majority of his games with the Quad City Mallards (ECHL). Alexandre Belanger had a really high GAA and crap save percentage in Quebec Major Juniors. Ales Stezka and Kaapo Kahkonen are still too young to get a good read on.
And that’s the problem with goaltenders in general, but especially those drafted in rounds six and seven, it’s incredibly difficult to know how these future netminders will pan out. One of these years, though, Fletcher or whomever is running the Wild will need to draft a goalie with a high pick. Yes, they do happen.
Dubnyk was a former first round pick. Cory Schneider, Tuukka Rask, Carey Price, Jonathan Bernier, and Semyon Varlamov were all drafted in the first round in their draft years. Most of those names have been franchise goalies and are true number ones.
Minnesota has had to trade or sign goalies to get by. And while this strategy can work to keep the team competitive, drafting and developing allows the cost to stay lower for a longer period of time so that the skilled skaters can be retained year after year.
The Wild’s goalie problem actually resembles the Minnesota Vikings and that franchise’s history with quarterbacks. Sure, a stop-gap, and a competent veteran can give you a couple good seasons of really good play, but in the end, it’s those teams that have a franchise quarterback, or franchise goalie that can sustain long-term success and win championships.