Rarely does a week pass without some kind of goalie drama with the Wild, so the team was due.
Thursday morning, 10 hours before the Wild looked to stop the longest regulation losing streak in team history, Josh Harding showed up at Xcel Energy Center not feeling well. That thrust Niklas Backstrom into the net for Thursday’s pivotal game against the Buffalo Sabres and caused Darcy Kuemper to be summoned from the Iowa Wild of the AHL to back him up.
That move cost Zenon Konopka his roster spot on his 33rd birthday. Konopka, who signed a two-year deal in 2012, was placed on waivers. If the veteran center clears at 11 a.m. Friday, the Wild can assign him to Iowa.
Coach Mike Yeo painted it like the Wild had no choice but to discard Konopka because the team needed a roster spot for Kuemper.
But there were other options. The Wild could have reassigned Stephane Veilleux, kept defenseman Clayton Stoner on injured reserve another game, or put seldom-used veteran Mike Rupp on waivers (Rupp makes $200,000 more than Konopka’s $1 million salary).
This was a Konopka-specific decision. Scratched the previous two games, Konopka led the Wild with a .657 faceoff winning percentage and seven fights, but had only a goal and an assist in 73 games with the team. The Wild tried to trade Konopka last summer to no avail.
Konopka, who refrained from commenting, and Yeo had a conversation on the ice Wednesday when Konopka was again not in regular-line rushes.
Yeo said the decision was based on how he had constructed his forward lines with centers Mikko Koivu, Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle and Kyle Brodziak.
“We want to give [the lines] a real chance to work, and we think it can work with the four centermen that we have, and that put Z on the outside,” Yeo said.
The Harding illness was just the latest in the Wild’s never-ending goalie carousel.
Kuemper has spent five different occasions on the Wild roster this season and Johan Gustafsson four because of injury or illness to Harding or Backstrom.
Backstrom has had a strained knee, a concussion and a virus. Harding has sustained two leg injuries, two illnesses and was lost for four games starting Dec. 18 to change his multiple sclerosis treatment plan.
That absence was at the start of the Wild’s recent losing streak. The medical issues with Harding and Backstrom have been an ongoing saga of GM Chuck Fletcher’s five-season tenure in Minnesota.
The Wild has had to carry three goalies on the active roster abnormally often.
Asked if he has ever seen such a goalie carousel during his three years with the Wild, Yeo said, “I don’t know that I have. It’s been a challenge, that’s for sure. Hopefully Hards is feeling better [Friday] and we’re back to business as usual with him.”
Stoner returned Thursday after missing four games because of a lower-body injury. Veteran defenseman Keith Ballard, a minus-12 in 17 games since missing nine because of broken ribs, was scratched. Ballard had not been a plus player in any of those 17 games and has made many mistakes that directly led to goals recently.
Nate Prosser, often the designated scratch when the blue line is healthy, stayed in the lineup.
“Since [Ballard’s] second injury … [his game is] not where it was, and we have to find a way to get it back,” Yeo said.
Yeo and Wild players were disappointed leading goal scorer Jason Pominville, a Canadian-born winger with dual citizenship, didn’t make the U.S. Olympic team.
“I didn’t really set any expectations,” said Pominville, who had a team-high 17 goals into Thursday’s game.
Wednesday’s announcement of the U.S. team featured children wearing each player’s jersey on the Winter Classic ice. Joked defenseman Ryan Suter, “At least [my kid] had the right number.”
The child representing Zach Parise wore No. 8; Parise is No. 11 with the Wild but will wear No. 9 in the Olympics.