As I mentioned on the previous blog, I've attended the Wild's captain's practices at Braemar the past few days and the first thing I noticed when I arrived Tuesday?
Three goalies on the ice (Actually four because Brody Hoffman's been participating, too).
When you cover the Wild, seeing more than two goalies on the ice becomes the norm. It has been for really the past three or four years.
As usual, there were Devan Dubnyk, Darcy Kuemper and Niklas Backstrom with Kuemper and Backstrom alternating one cage. Again, not abnormal.
What was very obvious is that if anybody thought Backstrom, who underwent offseason elbow surgery, would return to Minnesota and go through the motions or perhaps not be cleared medically, they were wrong.
Despite knowing he will almost assuredly be the third goalie this season, Backstrom spent four hours on the ice Tuesday. Two was spent practicing and scrimmaging with his Wild teammates, two was doing drill after drill with St. Cloud State goalie coach Dave Rogalski.
Rogalski said the drills they worked on were built around the idea of trust. Simple and effective movements to get to A to point B. He said they're working his feet and fluidity of his body. Eyes on puck for good tracking and post integration for jam plays. Fundamentals. Rogalski said you could tell how hard Backstrom worked this offseason and how he's sharp and focused.
It's just interesting how much work Backstrom, the Wild's all-time leader in goalie victories, is putting in despite not knowing if he'll play in Minnesota again, be traded, assigned to Europe, whatever.
When I noted that to Backstrom, he said, "It’s a long career. You want to end it on the right note. That’s what motivates you the most.”
It's hard to envision a way it ends on a good note here. For Backstrom to play, it'll mean injuries to Dubnyk or Kuemper.
I wrote a story on the Backstrom situation for Thursday's paper. You can read it on the startribune.com/wild page.
The Cliff's Notes version:
-- Coach Mike Yeo said he had no clue Backstrom was hurt last year. If the Wild knew the seriousness, one would think they would have shut him down the way they did the year before. Backstrom said he didn't hide the injury or keep it a secret. He said he hyperextended his elbow between the post and a player in the first exhibition game Sept. 22 in Winnipeg. The only thing I remember about that game is Backstrom was perfect on 12 or 13 shots in 30-plus minutes. I'll have to look back on my Twitter account to see if I noted the collision.
Regardless, he said he talked to trainers then and with trainers and doctors a couple times a week after aggravating the injury in March.
He experienced numbness and tingling when he held his cell phone and drove his car, a scary situation he said that caused fear this would affect him post-career. Backstrom said an MRI showed his triceps was torn and pressing against a nerve that affected his fingers.
Regardless, what's done is done. For the second time in two summers, the Wild couldn't buy him out of the final year of his contract because he was hurt.
-- Dubnyk's not going to start 38 in a row again this season. The Wild wants Kuemper to get a smattering of starts to spell Dubnyk, and for that to happen, the Wild really needs Kuemper getting the "reps" in practice. So the Wild would prefer not to go through another season of practices where Kuemper and Backstrom are sharing one net. So it'll be interesting what the Wild does to manage this.
-- As of right now, here are the Backstrom options assuming he's not suddenly going to take a turn for the worse, aggravate the injury and be able to be put on long-term injury relief:
Backstrom has a no-move clause. That means he cannot be sent to the minors without his permission, so the Wild’s options are limited: 1) Carry three goalies, meaning the Wild would be forced to roster one less forward or defenseman than normal (two vs. three), 2) trade Backstrom if somebody would take him or 3) assign him to a team in Europe that he can perhaps latch onto later this fall.
1) Because Backstrom didn’t start 25 games last season and finish in the top-15 in one of three statistical categories, the Wild’s permitted to trade Backstrom to one of 15 teams he has approved.
Backstrom is due $4 million this season with a $3.417 cap charge. Even if the Wild retained up to 50 percent of his salary and cap hit, that’s still a hefty price for a 37-year-old, oft-injured goalie.
I asked Backstrom if at this point to play he would accept a trade to any of 29 teams.
"Like everyone, you want to play," he said. "The older you get, the chances of playing are smaller. That’s the fun part of this game to go out there and compete. But the only thing I can control is my day to day work. That's my only focus.
"I don’t think it’s a secret how much this organization and this city and the fans mean to me. I love it here. But a lot of things out of my control.”
2) If the Wild assigned Backstrom to a team in Europe (Backstrom says he doesn’t yet have anything lined up), General Manager Chuck Fletcher said the Wild would free up a roster spot and get about $100,000 in cap relief.
“But what happens if you lose a goalie for the year? Then what do you do?” said Fletcher, who has dealt with several twists and turns with goaltender health since becoming Wild GM in 2009.
If something were to happen to Dubnyk or Kuemper, the Wild’s only other professionally-signed goalies besides Backstrom are minor-league rookies Brody Hoffman and Stephen Michalek. That means the Wild currently doesn’t have the type of experienced minor-leaguer that usually serves as an emergency callup.
The Wild has mulled over bringing White Bear Lake native Eric Hartzell, who has two years of ECHL and AHL experience, to camp, but that is on hold with Backstrom appearing healthy. And still, if something happens to Dubnyk or Kuemper, Hartzell doesn't have NHL experience and sparingly played in the AHL.
3) That’s why Fletcher expects “to carry three goalies on our roster.” Backstrom provides an insurance policy at minimum.
Keeping three goalies means the Wild can only keep 20 skaters. That would inhibit the ability of somebody making the team. For instance, right now the Wild theoretically has eight defensemen: Ryan Suter, Jonas Brodin, Marco Scandella, Jared Spurgeon, Matt Dumba, Nate Prosser, Christian Folin and Mike Reilly.
One would assume Dumba is a lock. He's the only two-way contract (lower salary in the minors) besides Reilly. If the Wild wants one-ways Prosser and Folin (Folin can be sent to the minors though without waivers) on the big club and Reilly proves enough to make the team, that's eight D. That would mean barring injuries, the Wild could only keep 12 forwards if it keeps eight D.
Assuming no injuries, if Tyler Graovac makes the team, Charlie Coyle moves to third-line right wing most likely and the fourth line may look like Ryan Carter, Erik Haula and Justin Fontaine. If Graovac doesn't make the team, the third line could be Thomas Vanek-Coyle-Fontaine with a fourth line of Carter-Haula-Jordan Schroeder perhaps (Right now, it looks like camp will start with Nino Niederreiter as right wing on the Jason Zucker-Mikko Koivu line).
So there's an example of how the Backstrom situation could affect Graovac and/or Schroeder. If the Wild keeps seven defensemen by maybe starting Reilly or Folin in Iowa, then obviously there's a little more breathing room for guys vying for forward spots (Graovac, Schroeder, Kurtis Gabriel, Michael Keranen, etc.). My guess is Yeo really wants to give Gabriel a good look because of the fact the Wild lacks grit and toughness up front.
Backstrom said he's not going to speculate on what happens because nobody's talked to him about the options.
"Sometimes it would be easy to get distracted and think about a lot of things, but at the end of the day, I don’t think that’s going to help you," he said.
Distraction or not, this will surely be an ongoing training camp storyline. That's just a fact of life. A fact of Wild life.
There's only two cages. But there are three goalies -- as usual.
The good news right now? For a change, they're all healthy. So, things could be worse.