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.