On a day when rumors swirled that future first-ballot Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur or Jaroslav Halak could be Minnesota-bound, the Wild pulled the lever on the simplest available option for goaltending insurance.
General Manager Chuck Fletcher, on the day he shut down Niklas Backstrom for the season because of an abdominal injury, sent the fourth-round draft pick the Wild received from Buffalo in last year’s Jason Pominville trade to Edmonton for former Phoenix Coyotes and Philadelphia Flyers starter Ilya Bryzgalov.
The enigmatic Russian goalie, a YouTube sensation for his goofy takes on the “universe” and comedic quarrels with the Flyers media, was bought out of the final seven years of his nine-year, $51 million contract by the Flyers last summer.
But Bryzgalov, 33, wanted to keep playing and even talked to the Wild after Backstrom strained a knee last October. He eventually signed a one-year deal with the Oilers. During the second intermission of Thursday’s game in Edmonton, GM Craig MacTavish was seen bending Fletcher’s ear.
Fletcher said the Wild was looking for a veteran goalie with playoff experience to help rookie Darcy Kuemper and “most importantly had an expiring contract.”
Since assuming the Wild’s No. 1 job Jan. 7, Kuemper is 11-2-2 with a 2.02 goals-against average and .930 save percentage. He has won five in a row, allowing six goals in that span.
Coach Mike Yeo said Tuesday that “we’re going to keep giving [Kuemper] opportunity to get out there and show what he’s done. We’re in large part where we are right now because of the job that he’s done.”
Bryzgalov, who will practice for the first time Thursday (the Wild has Wednesday off), accepts if he’s not the No. 1, saying, “I will do my job as best that I can. Make the decisions on who’s supposed to play, that’s not my job. My job is to go there, practice hard, play hard for the team and that’s it.”
He was a cheaper option than Halak. It’ll cost the Wild roughly $476,000 and still gives Fletcher the flexibility if he wants to add roughly $3 million in players by Wednesday’s 2 p.m. trade deadline. It could be more if the Wild opts to place Backstrom or Josh Harding, whom Fletcher doesn’t expect to play again this season, on long-term injured reserve.
Bryzgalov’s acquisition price also was cheap (the Wild still owns another fourth-round pick and nine selections in June’s seven-round draft) compared with that of Halak, who would have cost a prospect or a second-round pick, sources say.
The pressure to acquire a goalie was exacerbated by Backstrom’s situation. Backstrom, who had offseason sports hernia surgery, likely needs surgery again. He hasn’t been healthy all season, Fletcher said.
“Our goal for Nik is to get him healthy for next year,” said Fletcher, adding that Backstrom, who has two years left on his contract, was “very emotional” Tuesday yet still practiced because “that’s him.”
“Needless to say, he’s disappointed,” Fletcher said.
Bryzgalov went 5-8-5 with a 3.01 GAA in 20 games in Edmonton but played well after the Oilers acquired Ben Scrivens in January.
“He’s played in three Olympics, was a second-team All-Star one year, he’s won over 200 games in the NHL, so to add a goaltender of that caliber for what we felt was a very manageable price made a lot of sense,” Fletcher said.
Over a 12-year NHL career that has spanned four teams, including Anaheim, where he was together with Fletcher, Bryzgalov is 213-157-50 with a 2.57 GAA and .913 save percentage.
Bryzgalov is a big butterfly-style goalie who relies on positioning and athleticism. With structure in front of him, he’s had success in the league, and the Wild gives up the fifth-fewest goals per game (2.36) and the sixth-fewest shots per game (27.9).
Since Kuemper is all but certain to start his 16th consecutive game Saturday in Dallas, Bryzgalov could make his Wild debut Sunday against the St. Louis Blues at Xcel Energy Center.
“I like getting out there and playing, and we’ve been having success lately, but I’m just going to keep focusing on what I can control and the next game on the schedule,” Kuemper said.
Bryzgalov’s acquisition gives the Wild depth in case Kuemper, who has 73 minutes of NHL playoff experience, falters or gets hurt. Also, the Wild plays 20 games in the final 37 days, including five more sets of back-to-backs.
“It’s not possible for one goalie to play all of them, so they’re both going to have to win games,” Fletcher said.
The GM might not be done. Quebec TV reporter Renaud Lavoie reported Tuesday that Torrey Mitchell, saddled on the fourth line for two seasons, has requested to be traded. Mitchell and agent Kent Hughes denied the report, although that was contradicted Tuesday night by sources.
Veterans Dany Heatley and Kyle Brodziak also have been floated out there. If the Wild traded forwards, it would look to acquire some back and Fletcher often has proved to have something up his sleeve. Sources say the Wild has had ongoing conversations with the Sabres about Drew Stafford, Pominville’s former teammate and a former Shattuck- St. Mary’s and North Dakota teammate of Wild forward Zach Parise.
Additional forwards on the market include the New York Islanders’ Thomas Vanek, Buffalo’s Matt Moulson and Calgary’s Mike Cammalleri.
Fletcher spent the entire second intermission Monday with Flames acting GM Brian Burke.
If the Wild, 9-2-2 in its past 13 and winner of five in a row, stands pat, Yeo said Tuesday, “We like our group. We believe we can win with this group.”