ST. PAUL, Minn. — Josh Harding never wanted to enter the summer this way after being the Minnesota Wild’s goaltender in the 4-1 playoff series loss to Chicago Blackhawks, but he’s been preparing for this summer for the past several months.
Harding, diagnosed with multiple sclerosis late last summer, worked to get into shape to start this season on Minnesota’s roster. A midseason change in medication forced him to the injured reserve list for nearly three months. All the time missed, as Harding and the doctors worked on finding the right treatment so he can keep playing, was all so he didn’t have to worry about his illness any longer.
As the Wild’s most experienced goaltender signed to a contract for next season, Harding is focused this summer on getting ready for next season, not fighting MS.
“That’s why I missed time this year and the playoffs,” Harding said after the season ended. “It obviously was a big curve ball thrown at myself. It took a lot of learning to cope with it and get the medications right. It did take a while; (I’m) definitely happy with where I am right now and we’ll be even more dialed in next year.”
Harding, who turns 29 in June, has been Niklas Backstrom’s backup for the bulk of the past five seasons. Backstrom is an unrestricted free agent, leaving Harding as the team’s top netminder, for now, heading into next season. With his illness in check, he believes he’ll be ready to log big minutes, if needed, as he showed in the playoffs when he had a 2.94 goals-against average and .911 save percentage starting all five games against Chicago.
“I played five games in nine days and without that little injury, I was feeling great,” Harding said of a leg injury he suffered in Game 4. “No setbacks at all. This summer will be huge for me with getting some weight back on that I lost and getting a little stronger, and just getting everything kind of dialed in. It was kind of a crazy year for this to happen with the shortened season, but definitely it’s going to be a big summer for me. I’m definitely up for the challenge.”
Backstrom and Harding have a good working relationship and no animosity exists between the two. Harding has always been one of the league’s top backups, but hasn’t had the chance to show he can be a No. 1 goaltender. In parts of seven seasons with Minnesota, Harding has a 2.67 goals-against average and .915 save percentage.
He could be called on to be the team’s starter next season, but he hasn’t had time to process all the possibilities.
“I was busy with my own kind of agenda for that last little bit and haven’t even got to take in all that,” Harding said. “Obviously I’ve been playing with Backy for a long time. He’s a big part of this hockey club and I can’t say enough good things about him.”
Harding had the chance to leave the Wild last offseason after playing in a career-high 34 games in 2011-12. Instead, Harding made the decision to re-sign with Minnesota, which made him a second-round draft pick in 2002.
Harding believed he had found a home and wanted to stay with the Wild. After learning of his illness, the team rewarded Harding’s faith by being patient as he worked to get the right treatment and general manager Chuck Fletcher believes he can trust Harding’s availability into next season.
“Absolutely; the doctors are telling me now that they feel they can manage his illness,” Fletcher said. “He’s going to have all summer. I think he lost a little bit of weight. He’s had a tough time getting it back during the season. So my hope is during the summer he’ll get healthy in terms of his strength and his weight again and the things you need to have happen to play a full season.
“And he’s a guy that has never been that No. 1, but certainly in periods of his career has shown the ability to be a good goaltender. So, that will be his challenge. We’re certainly very comfortable with having him in the mix next year.”
Harding said he plans to stay in Minnesota during the summer and work out with the team’s strength coach as much as possible.
Being forced into action in the playoffs, just a week off of his return from injured reserve, should serve Harding and the Wild well into the summer and next season.
“Actually (I) think a lot, a lot more than maybe people realize,” Harding said of how he benefited from playing in the NHL playoffs for the first time in his career. “You’re playing stressful hockey, some big games in the playoffs. I think the way that I handled myself with that. … We’re not obviously excited about the outcome. Really disappointed, but you can definitely take positives and make sure that you can learn from what you’ve been through.”