The most amazing part of the Minnesota Wild’s late-season charge to the second round of the playoffs is now the biggest offseason priority.
Minnesota general manager Chuck Fletcher is embarking on another busy offseason, flush with salary-cap space and more important decisions for a team that took another step in its development this past season. Top of mind for Fletcher is the team’s goaltending.
Fletcher will have plenty of discussions and decisions about a group that saw five different goaltenders win games for the Wild this season. Minnesota suited up seven goalies in all, including emergency netminder Rob Laurie in March when injuries struck.
"I wish I could sit here and tell you we had the answer right now," Fletcher said last week in his season-ending press conference. "That’ll be part of the process we go through right now and in June at our organizational meetings. Certainly, the doctors will play a part in this, the salary cap will play a part in this, and we’ll sit down and try to make the best decisions we can. But certainly, there’s a realistic chance that we need to have three goaltenders next year. That is something we’ll look at and see how things play out this summer."
Doctors will play a part in the decision-making because Josh Harding had most of a second straight season (including the shortened 2012-13 slate) wiped out dealing with multiple sclerosis. Niklas Backstrom underwent surgery to repair a core muscle again, just as he did last offseason.
The salary cap plays a part because Backstrom and Harding are both signed at least through next season and their ability to stay on the ice is in question. Rookie Darcy Kuemper, who keyed the early 2014 run with sparkling play, is a restricted free agent.
Minnesota will certainly do what is necessary to keep Kuemper in the fold, but it could mean Kuemper’s first NHL one-way contract.
And then there is Ilya Bryzgalov, the trade-deadline pickup who is an unrestricted free agent. Bryzgalov came to the rescue late in the regular season and then again in the playoffs when Kuemper was hurt.
"That part is definitely amazing," head coach Mike Yeo said of the team overcoming the constant goaltending changes. "Again, that’s full credit to the goalies for coming in and performing the way that they did when called upon. And that’s full credit to the players playing in front of them. The system, the way that the guys bought in, the way that they defended night after night and the way that they competed night after night, obviously gave those guys a much better chance of succeeding."
Bryzgalov’s return, which didn’t seem likely when the Wild traded a fourth-round pick to the Edmonton Oilers in March to acquire him, is still a longshot depending on Backstrom and Harding’s status.
But after a regular season in which Bryzgalov went 7-1-3 with a 2.12 goals-against average (GAA) and .911 save percentage and then got eight playoff starts, there might be a small chance at a reunion.
"I’ve been so happy here," Bryzgalov said after losing Game 6 to Chicago. "But obviously I wish we can accomplish more, but it is what it is. But my personal experience here, it’s probably the best team that I play, the best organization that I’ve been (in)."
But for the myriad decisions that need to be made, Fletcher’s hands might be tied. If Backstrom and Harding are both ready to return and Kuemper is on a one-way contract, Fletcher and the Wild might just have to have three goaltenders on the NHL roster.
Fletcher said the team will have organizational meetings starting June 9 to begin wading through the options.
Yeo, whose contract is up and will also have to be settled, has instilled a defensive system led by star defender Ryan Suter, which has helped Minnesota’s goaltenders succeed. That aspect won’t change with Yeo expected to remain with the team.
"I think it was a little bit of both," Fletcher said. "Certainly, we played hard defensively, a very good structure, our forwards are all committed defensively, our defensemen move the puck well and they’re mobile. We have good structure. We play the game the right way defensively. But yet there were times where our goaltending was outstanding."
Harding was among the league leaders in GAA and save percentage through December when he had taken over for an injured Backstrom. Harding was 18-17-3 with team-bests in GAA (1.65) and save percentage (.933). He played in a team-high 29 games, yet didn’t play after Dec. 31.
"Look, as difficult as it is for us, it’s more difficult for him," Fletcher said. "He’s got a real battle ahead of him, and he’s handling it the best he can. I’ve been told that there’s a very reasonable chance he’ll be healthy and able to play next year. You never know; it’s a vicious illness. We’ll deal with it day to day. We’ll go from there, but Josh is a young guy, and I think he showed this year that despite what he’s battling, he can play at a high level. We’ll go through this summer. We’ll see how things work out. Training camp will be training camp, but certainly the hope is right now he can keep battling back."
Backstrom, 36, tied for the league lead with 24 wins last season and had a 2.48 GAA, which led to signing a new three-year contract with Minnesota during the past offseason. He was then limited to 21 games this year because of lingering abdominal issues and finished the season with a 5-11-2 record, 3.02 GAA and .899 save percentage.
He played his last game of the season on Jan. 30 and is due $3.4 million each of the next two seasons.
Kuemper could be the future at the position.
From the time he was recalled Jan. 2, Kuemper went 12-8-4 with a 2.28 GAA and .921 save percentage with two shutouts. He missed time at the end of the season with an upper-body injury, but came back in the playoffs to go 3-1-1 with a 2.03 GAA and .913 save percentage before suffering another upper-body injury.
"I think it’s part and parcel; it’s a good system, but we had goalies step up and play well," Fletcher said. "We have some talented guys, and when they were healthy, they’re good goalies."