Wild's goaltending depth is worth evaluating

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 8, 2014 - 12:38 AM

The Olympic break will give the Wild time to recharge and size up its roster, especially the guys in goal.

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At the Wild game against Nashville, goalie Darcy Kuemper(35) makes a save.

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

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In the interim, Mike Yeo will head to Mexico and, like his players, try to unwind, get some R & R and relieve some stress before returning to Minnesota following the Olympic break.

“It’ll take about three days probably before I stop dreaming about hockey, before I stop writing things down in the middle of the night,” the Wild coach said.

General Manager Chuck Fletcher is sticking around during the 20-day break. Sure, he’ll try to unplug a bit himself, but his goal is to address needs before the March 5 trade deadline. There is a freeze on trades until Feb. 24, the day after the Olympics end.

Of course, the elephant in the room is the Wild goaltending situation, which will need to be put in clearer focus for the stretch run.

The Wild is 11-4-2 in its past 17 games, with a six-point advantage in the Western Conference wild-card race.

“Like every team, we have needs, but this year is interesting because with the cap situation so tight on every team, you’re probably only going to be able to address one need,” Fletcher said. “It’s going to be hard to go out and do everything, so you almost need to pick the most pressing.

“We could probably use upgrades, but we’ve become a pretty tight-knit team through this last stretch, so I’d be very comfortable finishing the season with the team we have.”

If Fletcher had to pick one need?

“We’re a team still in the bottom six offensively, yet over the last month and a half, we’re averaging three goals a game. So you want to be a little careful there and decide if you need to really go out and get scoring,” he said.

“I like the way we defend and we have decent depth, but you could always use another defenseman. We have to figure out our goaltending situation, but we like our depth there, too. So throughout our lineup, we’ve had better depth, which is why we’ve been able to overcome all our injuries.

“But that’s not to say you can’t get better depth and find a way to upgrade a particular position.”

In other words, everything’s up in the air.

First, there’s the chaotic goalie shuffle.

Rookie Darcy Kuemper started 12 consecutive games before the Olympic break and performed commendably, going 8-2-2 in 13 starts since Jan. 7. But he’s 23, so the Wild must decide if Kuemper can take the reins the rest of the season and, potentially, into the playoffs.

The great unknown

The team can’t rely on Josh Harding or Niklas Backstrom being that guy. Backstrom is 5-11-2 with a 3.02 goals-against average and .899 save percentage, hasn’t started since Jan. 11 and has missed three games since Jan. 7 because of soreness he believes is related to abdominal surgery last May.

Harding, arguably the Wild’s first-half MVP with a 18-7-3 record, 1.65 goals-against average and .933 save percentage, missed 21 of the past 23 games because of what’s believed to be complications with multiple sclerosis. He hasn’t played in 2014.

The most likely scenario is the Wild continues to run with Kuemper. But one wonders if Fletcher needs to look for insurance.

“We’ll get through the next few weeks and see how things play out,” Fletcher said. “Our goaltenders have played well when healthy. Certainly, there have been some health and illness issues that have made us look at different scenarios from time to time, but when our guys have played, they’ve played well.

“I’m very comfortable with Darcy and Nik. Both have shown the ability to win games. If Josh can come back and play, we have good depth. The key is making sure our guys are healthy.”

Asked if he believes Harding will play again this season, Fletcher said, “We’re hoping in the next couple weeks he feels better and we get to the point where he can return to practice with the team. That’s his goal and our goal.”

Improvement obvious

There have been a lot of good signs lately. Zach Parise returned from a broken foot and has made an immediate impact. Different young players, from Mikael Granlund to Nino Niederreiter, are stepping up nightly. The defensemen have played tremendously.

“We’re starting to get better in some areas we were struggling at,” Parise said. “We’re playing better without the puck to create more offense rather than retreating back and spending 45 seconds in our zone. We’re more aggressive. Our penalty kill is creeping up the rankings. Offensively, things are clicking.

“All the areas that at one time were lacking have improved. We know this race will come down right to the end. It’s inevitable. You want to peak at the right time and I think we’re slowly getting better and hopefully we’ll keep getting better as it gets tougher down the road.”

The final 23 games will be a grind. The hope is players return refreshed and in a good state of mind for a late-season push. The good news is no matter what Fletcher does before the trade deadline, captain Mikko Koivu’s return should be around the corner, which in essence, will be like a deadline pickup.

“He plays such an important role for us, and in all situations, to get a guy like that back in, it’s only a good thing for us,” Parise said. “Our young guys have been playing bigger roles than they’re accustomed to, so you just hope they keep that confidence because we’re a stronger, deeper team because of that.”





 

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