ST. PAUL, Minn. — Even without starting goaltender Niklas Backstrom, the Minnesota Wild’s 4-1 first-round playoff series loss to the Chicago Blackhawks couldn’t be pinned on the team’s goaltending situation.
Facing the NHL’s second-highest scoring team during the regular season wasn’t the issue. Instead it was the team’s lack of scoring, such as going 0 of 18 on the power play, which led to Minnesota’s early playoff exit. Josh Harding, who had played in one NHL game in the nearly three months previous to starting Game 1, filled in admirably for Backstrom with a 2.94 goals-against average and .911 save percentage.
Yet, as the Wild enter the offseason, goaltending is the biggest question facing general manager Chuck Fletcher and the team’s staff.
Backstrom, off a season in which he tied for the league-lead in wins, is an unrestricted free agent. Harding and rookie Darcy Kuemper, who was thrust into action after Harding was hurt in the playoffs, are under contract. But the team’s goaltending situation is anything but settled.
“I’m being candid with you, I never thought our third goalie would end up playing the equivalent of one game in the playoffs,” Fletcher said last weekend at his season-ending press conference. “That threw us a little bit for a loop. Certainly we’re going to have to look at our goaltending. I’m going to sit down with Nik in the next week and get his thoughts, and we’ll go from there. The cap is going down next year, and we’re one of several teams in the league that will have to manage that situation. We’ll certainly look at our unrestricted free agents. We’ll look at some of the restricted guys we have to sign and it’s going to be a bit of a puzzle. But we have two months to figure that out.”
There’s several option in play for Fletcher and the Wild.
Backstrom, who went 24-15-3 with a 2.48 goals-against average and .909 save percentage, made $6 million this past season and might be considered by most as the top goaltender on the free-agent market. Harding showed well in the postseason, but his battle with multiple sclerosis has to be taken into consideration. Kuemper played in six games as a rookie and is generally considered the goaltender of the future after the team traded Matt Hackett in-season, but is Minnesota ready to turn the net over full-time to the 23-year-old.
Fletcher believes the solution could come from in-house options.
“Absolutely, but Nik’s an unrestricted free agent too, so he has a say in the matter,” Fletcher said. “We’re going to have to see if there is the right fit for him too. We’ll take a look at it, but I think Josh’s story is remarkable. I thought he played really well for us, considering the circumstances, in the playoffs. I think Darcy Kuemper’s going to be a really good goaltender. He just turned 23 and whether that’s realistic to have him here now, I’m not sure.
“Obviously that’s what training camp is for, but he’s been an elite goalie in the American League, the ECHL and in juniors, so he’s been a star at every level and now he’s making adjustments at this level. So we have pretty good depth in goal, but we’ll have to sort that situation out.”
With Backstrom, 36, the price tag in free agency will be a concern. But both sides also appear open to a return.
Backstrom, coming off sports hernia surgery, has been the team’s top netminder for the past seven seasons. He’s the franchise leader in wins (184), shutouts (28) and games played (369) and is second in team history in goals-against average (2.43) and save percentage (.917).
“I’ve been fortunate to be here for seven years and it’s a home for me,” Backstrom said. “I love the team. I love the cities, the state. It’s a great place to be. So I don’t think (leaving) ever crossed my mind. But its hockey, you never know what’s going to happen. Like injuries, it’s part of the game.”
Harding, 28, has been Backstrom’s long-time backup. He’s always been one of the league’s top reserves, but never has been given a chance as the No. 1 goaltender. He played a career high 34 games last season as Backstrom dealt with injuries. Harding has a career .915 save percentage and 2.67 goals-against.
Complicating matters is Harding’s fight against MS, which caused him to miss over two months this season while he dealt with a change in medication. Harding said he felt good in his return to the Wild and believe he and the doctors have figured out the best treatment and that he’s ready to log big minutes, if asked.
“Yeah, for sure,” Harding said. “I played five games in nine days and without that little injury, I was feeling great. 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.”
Kuemper and Hackett were both young goaltenders trying to establish themselves, but the future of the position likely became Kuemper’s after Hackett was traded. Kuemper, who was one of the American Hockey League’s top goaltenders this year, had a 2.08 goals-against and .916 save percentage in six games with Minnesota during the regular season.
The Wild also have young goaltender Johan Gustafsson, who is still playing in Sweden.
Besides Backstrom, free agency wouldn’t seem to bring many answers with the top free agent goaltenders being New York Islanders Evgeni Nabokov, Phoenix’s Mike Smith, Chicago’s Ray Emery, Carolina’s Dan Ellis, Edmonton’s Nikolai Khabibulin, and even former Minnesota goaltender Jose Theodore, who played last season with Florida. Only Nabokov and Smith were full-time starters last season.
Fletcher likely knows all the options. Now comes the tough part — deciding how to address the Wild’s biggest offseason question.