Training camp hasn’t started and the Wild already has serious goaltending issues.
Josh Harding, looking to resurrect himself after missing last season’s second half because of complications from multiple sclerosis, has been sidelined by an ankle injury, multiple sources said Tuesday.
The team, experts when it comes to bad luck with its goaltending health, was totally caught off guard Monday when Harding limped into the trainer’s room. For a month, Harding had been feeling great off the ice and looking great on the ice. He even sat down last week with the Star Tribune to talk about how much he was looking forward to this season.
But suddenly, Harding didn’t take part in the team’s captain’s practices the past two days at Xcel Energy Center, is walking with the use of crutches and will miss at least the start of training camp when players take the ice Friday. The injury did not occur on the ice, sources say.
General Manager Chuck Fletcher was scheduled to return to the Twin Cities from Traverse City, Michigan, where the Wild participated in a prospect tournament, on Tuesday night. The Wild does not yet know the extent of the injury or how long Harding will be out, although it’s expected to be awhile.
Fletcher is expected to meet with coach Mike Yeo, Harding and athletic therapist Don Fuller on Wednesday, as well as speak with team orthopedic surgeon Joel Boyd.
Harding didn’t reply to text messages Tuesday.
With veteran Niklas Backstrom healthy and Harding set to be ready, the Wild had been playing hardball with unsigned restricted free agent Darcy Kuemper. Harding’s injury could have implications on the negotiations with the young goaltender.
Kuemper was seeking a one-year, one-way contract, while the Wild was offering a two-year deal with the first year being a two-way and the second year being a one-way as of last week.
Kuemper’s agent floated that his client, who at least then had little leverage, was contemplating offers from Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League.
If Harding is out long-term, the Wild also has unsigned unrestricted free agent Ilya Bryzgalov as an option.
Last season in 12 regular-season games with the Wild, Bryzgalov went 7-1-3 with a 2.12 goals-against average and .911 save percentage. In the playoffs, he went 3-6-1 with a 2.63 goals-against average and .885 save percentage.
Bryzgalov, 34, made clear publicly through his agent last month that he wanted to return to the Wild. It’s believed Fletcher has already reached out to Bryzgalov to see if he would be willing to come to training camp on a tryout.
Backstrom, whose 189 wins rank first all-time on the Wild, has so far looked good in his skates. Two seasons ago, he tied for the league lead with 24 wins but sustained a sports hernia minutes before Game 1 of the playoffs. Last season, Backstrom sustained myriad injuries and never felt completely healthy coming into the year. He went 5-11-2 with a 3.02 goals-against average and .899 save percentage.
He ultimately underwent season-ending abdominal and hip surgeries. He is now 36 with two years left on his contract.
“This is an opportunity for him,” Yeo said Monday before knowing that Harding was injured. “Backy’s kind of been the forgotten soldier right now. Nobody even talks about him. He’s won a lot of hockey games for us, there’s been many games where I know he stole games for us. He’s a guy who can come in and do that again this year. I think he’ll be motivated.”
Last week, Harding sat down with the Star Tribune for an interview. That article was supposed to appear in Tuesday’s editions. In the story, Harding discussed how great he felt on and off the ice and how he was looking forward to this season.
“It’s one of those summers where everything clicked and I feel even better than I did last summer and feel like I’m in better shape,” said Harding, 30. “With the year of knowledge of what I’m dealing with, with a different mind-set and different mentality about what I did this offseason, I think it’s definitely going to help out tremendously.
“I just feel … great. Physically, mentally, knowing everything that’s been working for me, I believe I’m going to show I’m capable of playing a full season. I just feel … great.”
Last year, Harding was in the midst of a sensational season, reeling off 18 victories by Dec. 17 before missing a road trip for what even doctors felt would be a minor adjustment to his treatment.
That season, one in which Harding led the NHL with a 1.65 goals-against average and .933 save percentage, would be stopped in its tracks. He returned to start two games, including one where he clearly wasn’t right and the Wild blew a three-goal lead to the Islanders. He didn’t play again after Jan. 1 – the second season in a row he missed significant time due to the debilitating illness.
It’s clear Harding had a relapse.
“Without going into big details, one plus one equals two. The changing of the medication, the changing of the treatment over the Christmas break, things happened and things happened quick,” Harding said.
But Harding had been feeling great since the springtime and came close to returning in the playoffs. Conditioning was the only reason why he couldn’t. Last week, even Harding said the only thing that has kept him from being an everyday No. 1 is health. Even before being diagnosed with MS, Harding was often derailed by injuries, whether it being to his knee or hip.
Asked last week what his biggest objective was this season, Harding didn’t hesitate: “To stay healthy the entire season and be available for every game and give the team whatever they need from me and try my best and have fun while I do it.”