PHILADELPHIA – The most remarkable thing about the Wild’s run to the conference semifinals last season was that of the four different No. 1 goalies — and seven on the roster — none played more than 29 games.
The Wild somehow survived signing a 43-year-old beer-leaguer to back up one game and threw John Curry in for another and managed a win despite being outshot 45-15.
To say the goaltending situation was turbulent is an understatement.
First-half MVP Josh Harding missed the second half because of complications with multiple sclerosis. Niklas Backstrom, 36, who has gone under the knife more than a half-dozen times the past five years, was never healthy and eventually was shut down so he could have two more operations. Darcy Kuemper saved the Wild’s hide until concussion issues thrust Ilya Bryzgalov into the spotlight.
Well, guess what? There’s no clear way to stabilize things heading into next season. The NHL draft, which starts Friday night with Round 1, and free agency are opportune times to alter one’s roster, but that could be impossible with the goalie position this summer. The Wild can’t simply sign a free-agent goalie such as Ryan Miller or Jonas Hiller. Backstrom has two years left on his contract, Harding has one, and Kuemper is likely to sign a one-way contract, meaning he could be sent to AHL Iowa without having to clear waivers but would be paid his NHL salary if assigned there.
“When our guys are healthy, they’ve played well,” General Manager Chuck Fletcher said. “We have three of them, and we’ll just have to let it work itself out. It’s not the easiest thing to change. Our goaltending was not a problem. It was a problem in terms of the number of goalies we used, but not by the performance.
“It’s different. We’re not completely locked in, but there’s not a ton of flexibility. So, they’ve all proven they can play at a high level, and the key is how do we keep two of them healthy?”
Fletcher expects Backstrom to be ready to go by training camp. His rehab, after season-ending abdominal surgery, followed by hip surgery, is going according to plan, Fletcher says.
“He’s feeling better than he has in a long time, including all of last year,” Fletcher said. “How that translates on the ice, I don’t know, but I know we expect him to be much closer to the Nik Backstrom of two seasons ago when he tied for the league lead in wins than the Nik Backstrom of last year.
“Josh’s situation is more complicated. I think we’re all hopeful, but nobody knows. The one difference this year is Darcy. While it probably wouldn’t hurt him to get more time in Iowa, he’s shown at various times he’s a pretty good goalie up here.”
Many mock drafts have the Wild taking highly touted Boston College goalie Thatcher Demko 18th overall. Even if that happened, Demko couldn’t solve the Wild’s perceived short-term concerns. He likely will return to BC, where he is a rising sophomore, for a couple more years before developing in the minors. And Fletcher and assistant GM Brent Flahr are hesitant to take a goalie that high.
There are examples of first-round goaltending home runs, such as Olympic gold medalist Carey Price going fifth overall to Montreal and recent Vezina Trophy winner Tuukka Rask going 21st overall to Toronto in 2005.
But that’s rare. Take three of the best goalies in the NHL: Henrik Lundqvist, Pekka Rinne and Jonathan Quick. At the 2000 draft, the Islanders traded Roberto Luongo and Kevin Weekes on the same day and drafted Rick DiPietro first overall. Twenty goalies and 204 picks later, Lundqvist, the 2012 Vezina winner and 2014 Stanley Cup finalist, was selected by the Rangers. Rinne, the 2011 Vezina runner-up, was selected 258th overall in 2004 by Nashville. Twenty-nine goalies went ahead of him. Quick, who has won two Stanley Cups and a Conn Smythe Trophy, was taken 72nd overall by Los Angeles in 2005. After Rask, five goalies were taken before the Kings took Quick. Seven spots before Quick, the Wild took somebody named Kristofer Westblom, a current Central Hockey Leaguer.
“Just the way goaltending works, there are reasons teams don’t take goalies in the first round,” Flahr said. “A lot of times somebody better comes out later. Goaltending is such a tough thing to project.”
Fletcher says he’ll again be relying on the Wild’s strong defensive structure and a stroke of luck to keep Backstrom, Harding and Kuemper healthy.
“It wasn’t always the simplest way to go about things and wasn’t always pretty, but we got good enough goaltending to do what we did,” he said. “If all three of them get hurt at the same time or we run into crazy issues again, we’ll have to react.”
Last year, Fletcher had several Plan C’s (and D’s and E’s). At one point, he nearly brought back Jose Theodore. He eventually acquired Bryzgalov.
“There are usually more goalies looking for jobs than there are jobs, so historically there will be options during the season if something happens,” Fletcher said. “I like our goaltending. I recognize the concern. We all share it. I think even the goaltenders share it.
“But Nik’s in a much better spot. Darcy has another year of maturity under his belt, and we’re hopeful on Josh. We’ve got to bank on two of them being able to step up and play.”