ST. PAUL, Minn. — Minnesota general manager Chuck Fletcher got a jump on the NHL’s trade deadline.
With Wednesday afternoon’s deadline closing in, Fletcher and the Wild made a move to fortify their goaltending depth by acquiring veteran Ilya Bryzgalov from the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for a fourth-round draft pick which was originally acquired from Buffalo last April as part of the Jason Pominville trade.
Bryzgalov will combine with Darcy Kuemper in goal for Minnesota, with Kuemper expected to receive most of the starts after his strong play the last two months.
Fletcher’s need for a goaltender became clear over the past two days as the team decided to shut down Niklas Backstrom, likely for the rest of the season, because of a lingering lower-body injury and the unknown return of Josh Harding, who is dealing with multiple sclerosis.
"You never know with Nik, but we’re operating under the assumption that he’ll be out until next season," Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher said. "So, over the last 24, 48 hours we’ve intensified our search for a goaltender. The criteria was simple. We were looking for an experienced goaltender who’s had some success in the league, somebody that’s played in the playoffs, somebody that has played in some high-pressure situations, and probably most importantly, somebody that had an expiring contract after the season."
Bryzgalov, 33, fit Minnesota’s criteria and gives the Wild flexibility to continue to still remain active before Wednesday’s 3 p.m. CST trade deadline if another deal fits the team’s needs.
"I think that was a big part of it," Fletcher said. "When you looked at it, there were certainly some other teams we spoke to and we look at Ilya and his cap hit, his contract is very manageable and we felt a fourth-round pick was something we could handle, as well. We weren’t interested in moving any of our young players or younger assets, and certainly we’re not interested in moving higher picks in this situation. I think it worked out well."
Edmonton signed Bryzgalov in November as he waited out free agency. He played 20 games with the Oilers, going 5-8-5 with a 3.01 goals-against average and .908 save percentage.
Edmonton had recently acquired goaltender Ben Scrivens from the Los Angeles Kings and Bryzgalov had played only seven games since the middle of January. The Philadelphia Flyers bought out the final seven years of a nine-year contract with Bryzgalov in the offseason. He has played 445 NHL games with the Oilers, Flyers, Coyotes and Ducks since entering the NHL in 2001.
"I look at this as a great opportunity for me to play, and yeah, it’s like a new challenge, a new team," Bryzgalov said. "We are in a playoff spot right now and fighting for the playoffs and it’s the most exciting time of the year when you play in the playoffs."
Kuemper has seized his opportunity as Minnesota’s No. 1 goaltender with Harding and Backstrom both dealing with health issues. Kuemper has started 15 straight games for the Wild in net, a rookie record for the franchise.
He’s won five straight starts as Minnesota has cushioned its lead in the Western Conference wild-card standings with 75 points, nine better than ninth-place Vancouver and Winnipeg. Since Jan. 7, Kuemper is 11-2-2 with a 1.70 goals-against average, a .939 save percentage and two shutouts.
"Really comfortable with Darcy and I’m comfortable with Ilya, too, so we have two goaltenders," Fletcher said. "Starting Saturday we have 20 games in 37 days and it’s not possible for one goalie to play all of them. So they’re both going to have to win games, they’re both going to have to play and (coach Mike Yeo) will make the decision as to who plays what games, but certainly we’re very comfortable with Darcy.
"We’ve always felt he’d be a very good No. 1 goalie down the road. We just didn’t realize down the road would mean this January and February."
Kuemper’s quick ascension has helped the Wild overcome the loss of Backstrom and Harding, who were the team’s goaltenders at the start of the season. But when it was clear Backstrom and Harding likely wouldn’t be able to help the team this season, Fletcher moved quickly to find a suitable backup for Kuemper.
"At this point we have to make the assumption that Nik and Josh will not be playing for us this year and this is the direction we chose to go in," Fletcher said.
Bryzgalov also brings playoff experience with 38 postseason games on his resume. In 2011-12, he backstopped Philadelphia in the playoffs and went 5-6-0 with a 3.46 goals-against average and .887 save percentage. His career playoff numbers include a 17-19-3 record with a 2.81 goals-against average and .908 save percentage.
"I think it’s every player’s goal, a role just to fit the team and bring whatever you can best for the team, for the team’s success," Bryzgalov said.
Later, the veteran netminder added that he has no issues coming in as Kuemper’s backup.
"I will do my job as best as I can," Bryzgalov noted. "Making the decisions on who is supposed to play is not my job. My job is to go there, practice hard, play hard for the team and that’s it."
Minnesota was rumored to be in the search for more goaltending as the deadline approached with names like Buffalo’s Jaroslav Halak and New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur being linked to the Wild.
Halak, who was recently traded to Buffalo from St. Louis in the Ryan Miller deal, and Brodeur likely would have cost the Wild more in a trade than Bryzgalov, and the move gives Fletcher more flexibility with hours left before the trade deadline.
"We feel very comfortable with our team," Fletcher said. "Whether it’s the trade deadline, this summer, anytime of the year, if you can upgrade your team, you will. We’re certainly talking to teams. I don’t feel we have to do anything, but if there’s a deal that makes us better, we’ll do it."