Wild’s goalie situation remains rather muddled
ST. PAUL, Minn. — This isn’t even a goalie carousel anymore.
Merry-go-rounds are just that. Round. Rhythmic. A rider can easily determine when his or her mechanical steed will rise or fall and what landmarks it will pass at any particular time.
It’s not a revolving door, either. Those have a way out, eventually.
No, the Minnesota Wild remain embroiled in a game of netminder Whack-A-Mole, where the player has no clue when one rodent will emerge from its hole and another will disappear.
Since the beginning of last season, a franchise on the rise has constantly dealt with utter unpredictability in its crease.
Ideally, the Wild would have a predetermined, healthy and reliable No. 1 goaltender heading into Monday’s preseason opener. Ideally, they’d have a starter slotted for each of their six exhibition contests in preparation for the 2014-15 campaign. Ideally, they wouldn’t have one goalie who’s out injured and suspended indefinitely and another who just showed up for camp after a long offseason of restricted free agency negotiations.
"But," coach Mike Yeo pointed out, "I don’t know that we’ve necessarily been a team that’s been able to work in ideals."
The 2013-14 Western Conference semifinalists were set to open camp with six goalies on the roster, two of which — Niklas Backstrom and Ilya Bryzgalov — have a realistic chance of dressing for the regular-season opener Thursday, Oct. 9 against Colorado. A third, 24-year-old Darcy Kuemper, arrived at the Xcel Energy Center on Friday afternoon just in time to miss the team’s three separate practice sessions and scrimmages.
After a summer of holding out for a one-way deal, Kuemper got it Thursday in the form of a two-year, $2.5 million contract, per reports. The Saskatoon, Saskatchewan native had a physical Friday morning and popped into the X wearing a Toronto Blue Jays hat and bumping fists with teammates he hadn’t seen at all during the offseason.
"It was a longer summer than I ever expected it to be," Kuemper said. "I was definitely getting a little anxious; obviously, I didn’t want to miss camp or miss parts of it."
Said Yeo, who days earlier had expressed unbridled frustration at the organization’s goaltending plight: "I saw him in the locker room for the first time, and I was kidding around that he was able to get here just in time not to skate. But no, I’m very pleased that we got him signed. I’m very happy for him, I’m very happy for us, and now it’s time to get to work."
But the Wild’s hand was somewhat forced by the purported off-ice altercation with a teammate that caused goalie Josh Harding a fractured foot and an indefinite, unpaid suspension. Harding will still be allowed to rehab and work out with the team, Yeo said.
But a coach who started five goalies last year and is looking for just an iota of stability isn’t wont to gloss over losing players to off-ice incidents.
"Those are never easy things to deal with, but something was done that we determined that we needed to do," Yeo said. "This is not by any means we’re just throwing this guy aside and getting rid of him, but we needed to do something and now our focus is on the guys here."
Harding, 30, had a scintillating start last season before being essentially shut down due to his multiple sclerosis. Fellow veteran Niklas Backstrom was also reliable till his season ended for good in January due to injury.
So the Wild rode Bryzgalov and Kuemper to the second round of the postseason. Once news of Harding’s latest injury came out, they went after Bryzgalov and signed him to a preseason tryout accord.
The ever-quirky goaltender barely played any hockey this offseason. Instead, he spent time with his family in Russia and traveled with them to places like Aruba, Cyprus, Italy and Switzerland.
"I was just enjoying my life, you know," Bryzgalov said. "I was enjoying the family."
No other NHL teams reached out to the 34-year-old, but he didn’t mind; he preferred to end up back in the Twin Cities, anyway.
"I love this team," said Bryzgalov, who went 7-1-3 with a .911 save percentage in 12 regular-season games and had a 2.63 goals-against average in nine playoff contests. "I love town. I like the players. I like organization. I’m just glad to just came here and help in getting through the camp."
Injuries to Harding, Backstrom and later Bryzgalov (in the playoffs) thrust Kuemper into the late-season limelight, too. He started a franchise rookie-record 16 straight games and went 12-8-4 with a 2.43 goals-against average in 26 regular-season appearances, then started five postseason games and compiled a 2.03 goals-against average before an injury of his own terminated his season.
So Yeo enters the fall with a 24-year-old who’s just getting back to playing form, a 36-year-old in Bakstrom who’s still rehabbing but "feels good" after one day of camp, a one-time loaner in Bryzgalov who has a real shot of making the team now, and a suspended goalie in Harding whose injury is expected to keep him out months, not weeks.
There’s no set plan for them moving forward, Yeo said. He’d prefer to carry only two goalies on the active roster — Yeo still has the option to send Kuemper down to the AHL; he’d just continue to receive NHL-level pay during any time he spends in Iowa — but if he’s learned anything in the past calendar year, it’s that there’s no such thing as extreme caution when it comes to this stable of goalies.
"I want to make sure whoever we have in the net for Game 1, that we give him a good opportunity to be ready for that game, make sure that we give them enough games to feel that way," Yeo said. "But also with that, we’ve got to make sure that we’re using those games to determine and figure out who the right guy is for that."
Chaos continues to reign when it comes to Minnesota’s last line of defense. But ‘tenders tend to embrace pandemonium, anyway.
"Us goalies grow up knowing that only one guy is going to play, so you pretty much have that competition since you’re 6, 7 years old," said Backstrom, who went 5-11-2 in 21 games with a 3.02 goals-against average last season. "That’s just part of the game. . . . It’s mostly worrying about things you can do and things you can affect, and that’s just your own game."
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