As the Olympic trade freeze is lifted Sunday night and the NHL’s March 5 trade deadline fast approaches, the elephant in the Wild’s room revolves around its always blurry goaltending situation.
Josh Harding remains out indefinitely.
Veteran Niklas Backstrom is 5-11-2 with a 3.02 goals-against average. He hasn’t made a start since Jan. 11. And while the company line is the Olympic break should have benefited Backstrom, he said he has finally figured out what is causing his season-long abdominal soreness and it’s something he may have to deal with for the balance of the season.
Darcy Kuemper has started 12 consecutive games, is 8-2-2 in his past 13 starts with a 2.18 goals-against average and .929 save percentage and has looked every bit capable of handling the reins for the rest of the season.
But, he’s 23, with 73 minutes of mop-up NHL playoff experience.
So General Manager Chuck Fletcher’s task the next nine days is to determine whether he needs to address the goaltending situation.
The Wild knows it can’t depend on Harding’s return (he hasn’t played since Dec. 31 and hasn’t practiced in five weeks), and with Backstrom banged up and struggling through a difficult season, Fletcher must decide if he’s confident the rookie Kuemper can rise above the pressure and not only pilot the Wild into the postseason but deliver once he gets there.
The team has done a remarkable job navigating through a goaltending quagmire the past two seasons. Last year, Harding was lost for two months because of complications with multiple sclerosis, yet the team rode Backstrom into its first playoff berth in five years.
This year, Harding and Backstrom have been sidelined myriad times for myriad issues, so much so that Kuemper has been on the roster five separate times and fourth goalie Johan Gustafsson six.
Last week, Fletcher signed John Curry to provide insurance, but he has four games of NHL experience. Gustafsson has none.
Since the Wild wouldn’t be able to add another goalie after March 5, Fletcher must decide now if he’s willing to bank on a Kuemper-Backstrom tandem.
If not, the trade route is the likely remedy.
Ryan Miller is the biggest name on the trading block. But new Buffalo Sabres GM Tim Murray is looking to hit a home run, meaning it would cost the Wild a significant amount of assets (probably three). The Wild, if it makes the playoffs, is all but certain to land in one of two wild-card spots, meaning it would face one of the West’s elite in the first round.
So, arguably, giving up a boatload for Miller only makes sense is if the Wild plans to re-sign him long-term. If the Wild determines Kuemper is the proverbial “Goalie of the Future,” then it makes no sense. If the Wild determines Miller’s asking price is too expensive, it makes no sense.
In December, when Henrik Lundqvist signed a seven-year, $59.5 million extension with the Rangers, Miller said the contract “sets the standards.” That caused many to feel Miller expects similar term and dollars in free agency, although somebody close to Miller says that’s not true.
Regardless, Miller will be 34 by next season, so a long-term deal may be risky.
The goalie Fletcher should investigate is future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur, the NHL’s all-time leader with 1,248 games, 682 wins and 124 shutouts in the regular season.
Brodeur, 41, who is 13-11-4 with a 2.52 goals-against average, hasn’t started since Jan. 26 and will likely be Corey Schneider’s backup the rest of the season in New Jersey. He’s in the last year of his deal, so if the Wild could assure him playing time, perhaps Brodeur would waive his no-trade clause.
He has two children at Shattuck-St. Mary’s, too. His experience is intriguing, with 113 playoff wins in 205 playoff games and three Stanley Cups.
Hey, maybe Fletcher’s final analysis will be to stick with Kuemper and Backstrom, but one thing’s for sure: Brodeur would be cheaper, both in assets and real dollars/cap hit, than Miller.
NHL unhappy with Sochi injuries
One reason these Winter Olympics might be the last for NHLers is because of the risk of injury in the middle of the NHL season.
In the Olympics, Florida lost Aleksander Barkov to a knee injury and Tomas Kopecky to a concussion, Pittsburgh lost Paul Martin and the Rangers lost Mats Zuccarello because of hand injuries. The big one was when Islanders superstar John Tavares went down with a season-ending knee injury.
“Are the IIHF or IOC going to reimburse our season-ticket holders now? It’s a joke,” Islanders GM Garth Snow told Newsday. “They want all the benefits from NHL players playing in the Olympics and don’t want to pay when our best player gets hurt.
“This is probably the biggest reason why NHL players shouldn’t be in the Olympics, it should just be amateurs. And it could have happened to anyone; it just happened to be us that lost our best player. A lot of people pay to see John play. It wouldn’t matter if we were 10 points clear of a playoff spot or 10 points out. We lost our best player and he wasn’t even [injured while] playing for us.”
Poile’s eye injury serious
David Poile might never be the same after being struck by a puck during the Nashville Predators’ morning skate at Xcel Energy Center on Feb. 6.
The general manager currently has no sight out of his right eye after cracking his orbital bone above and below the eye. The 64-year-old also broke his nose in three places.
“I’m not trying to be a hero or anything else,” Poile said. “This is not a good situation. It is difficult, but I have to, and want to, move on. There’s different adjustments that [I’m] going to have to make, but there’s lots of people that have lost an eye and they’re operating very well, and I have to be one of them.”
The Wild’s week ahead
Thursday: at Edmonton, 8:30 p.m. (FSN)
Friday: at Vancouver, 9 p.m. (FSN)
Player to watch:
Taylor Hall, Oilers
The No. 1 pick in the 2010 draft, the Oilers star was snubbed from Team Canada but is tied for 12th in the NHL with 56 points.
"We have to recognize what’s at stake and hit the ground running when we play our first game in Edmonton."
Coach Mike Yeo on the Wild, five points up on a playoff spot, resuming the season.