Minnesota’s Wild Goaltending Situation
After using five goaltenders last season, Minnesota now faces a battle to find the right two heading in to the new season.
Veteran Niklas Backstrom is healthy again, Josh Harding is ready to return to the line up and Darcy Kuemper…is not happy.
With an apparent stalemate reached between the club and the 24-year old, the Saskatoon native is even said to be considering the KHL as an option.
TSN’s Bob McKenzie broke the news that Kuemper had turned his attention to Russia after the two parties struggled to reach an agreement on a new contract.
Kuemper has been impressive in his few outings for the Wild, posting a .915 save percentage and 2.38 GAA – but that sample comprises of just 32 NHL games; giving a strong indication as to why Wild GM Chuck Fletcher is reluctant to sign the former Red Deer stopper to a major contract at this stage of his career.
It’s not the first time Kuemper and the Wild have clashed over a contract, with the netminders entry level deal proving ‘problematic’ as well; and while Head Coach Mike Yeo has publicly announced intentions to give Kuemper, Backstrom and Harding playing time during the pre-season, Fletcher announced in August that the veteran Finn and Regina native were both fit and ready for the new season.
Whether it was designed to let Kuemper know his place in the pecking order, or a simple show of support for two netminders who had their own problems last season, Fletcher’s comments will do little for the clubs relationship with the young puck stopper.
Widely seen as the future of the clubs goaltending, Kuemper will undoubtedly get the chance to play a much bigger role in the near future – but faces stiff competition this season.
Last year, Harding went 18-7-3 with a .933 save percentage and 1.65 GAA before a change in his treatment for MS sidelined him for the second half of the season. Entering the last year of his current deal, the 30-year old could either secure the #1 role or be allowed to move on next summer.
Sadly Harding’s condition remains the elephant in the room, and until Minnesota can feel confident he can stay healthy it is unlikely they will offer him a contract extension.
Nik Backstrom also had health issues last term, missing the final 20 games of the season and the play-offs with an abdominal injury. Now 36, Backstrom’s numbers have been in decline for the past two seasons, but he can still be a useful contributor to the right tandem until his deal expires in 2016.
Whether Kuemper is prepared to wait for one, or both, of Harding and Backstrom to move on seems to be a major sticking point. While the club wants the option to be able to let Kuemper play with Iowa in the AHL, something perhaps better for his development right now, the player wants to stake his claim to a place that might not be there.
The situation is further complicated by last season’s ‘stop gap’, Ilya Bryzgalov, also expressing an interest in returning.
Whilst Fletcher is unlikely to pursue the Russian right now, it does mean he has some leverage over Kuemper in that the youngster is not the only option available should Harding or Backstrom falter.
Throw in the general availability of goaltenders around the league, with even stars like Cam Ward potentially available, and much of the compromise needs to come from Kuemper if he is to pursue his NHL career in Minnesota.
Or perhaps in general – bolting for the KHL hardly paints the best picture of a young man who has already had two troublesome contract negotiations before he’s even hit his prime.