As has become tradition in Minnesota around the time of the winter solstice, the Wild is a team on the edge of crisis.
There have been obstacles such as a putrid power play, feeble production from centers, decelerated development by a few youngsters and disappointing play from some veterans.
But again the foremost concern surrounding the Wild rests on hockey’s most important position — goaltending.
On Dec. 19 last year Josh Harding, the NHL’s best statistical goalie in the first half of the season, didn’t make an Eastern road trip because of a “minor adjustment” to his treatment for multiple sclerosis. He played in only two more games before shutting down for the season. Niklas Backstrom’s abdominal injury ultimately ended his season, so Harding’s disappearance triggered a second half of goalie turmoil. The Wild, however, navigated admirably through the quagmire with interchangeable goalies largely because of a strong defensive structure.
This season, the season got off to a bad start for goalies when Harding broke a foot four days before training camp. Three months later, he is again sidelined because of MS, and with training camp attendee Ilya Bryzgalov having signed in Anaheim, the poor performances lately by Darcy Kuemper and Backstrom have created a serious worry. That was hammered home Saturday when the Wild scored five goals against star goalie Pekka Rinne and still lost in overtime to Nashville.
In 31 games this season, the Wild has 89 goals — 17 more than it had through the same amount of games last season. Yet, the Western Conference’s 10th-place team’s 35 points are four fewer than it had at this point last season.
How is that possible when the Wild has allowed a league-low 26.5 shots per game? Well, the Wild’s save percentage is an abysmal .898.
Stats don’t lie
Kuemper ranks 52nd in the NHL with a .903 save percentage; Backstrom is 55th at .901. Kuemper, pulled in four of his past five home starts, has the NHL’s fourth-worst even-strength save percentage (.897) and second-worst adjusted save percentage, which measures shot quality, at .887, according to war-on-ice.com.
Both goalies said Monday they have to be better. And it’s also fair to blame the NHL’s 26th-ranked power play and a handful of disappointing skaters.
But the common theme around the team was that the Wild must revert to that stingy defensive structure of last season.
“They have to be better. They know that,” defenseman Ryan Suter said of Kuemper and Backstrom. “But we have to help them better. Early in games, we have to be better to limit the chances to get them into games. They want to be better. I know they do. They’re working hard. … We just have to be better as a group. The faster we get it figured out, the better off we’ll be.”
The team has gotten into a bad habit of falling behind and often catching up on valiant comebacks before a late goal or two derails everything. Just look at Dec. 5 when the Wild rallied from a 3-0 deficit against Anaheim to take a 4-3 lead before Kuemper gave up a goal to bruiser Tim Jackman 90 seconds later.
In each of the past four games, the Wild has rallied from one- or two-goal deficits in the third period to tie. It won one of those games.
“It starts with the goaltending, but I think everyone as a whole, we need to tighten up,” Kuemper said.
The Wild gave up 18 goals in its first 10 games to jump to a 7-3 record. It was suffocating defensively and always had the puck. In 21 games since, it has played looser, spent more time in its own zone and has allowed 3.1 goals per game for a 9-9-3 record.
Back to basics?
Coach Mike Yeo says the Wild has been lax with the details in its game, from poor line changes, to not getting pucks out, to turning pucks over to careless penalties.
“We’re not helping the situation with some of the play in front of our goalies,” Yeo said. “You look back to last year and how many goalies came in — whether it was Backy, whether it was Bryzgalov, whether it was Kuemps, take your pick — we were able to throw different goalies in there and they were able to play well, and that was a credit to those guys, but that was also a huge credit to the structure and the system and the players playing in front of them.
“That’s what we have to get back to.”
Still, Yeo has to be frustrated with the play of his goalies. Almost nightly this month, Yeo has had to decide when or if to pull them, and this is a coach who in a moment of candor after Harding broke his foot in September confessed, “I put on the cool face last year pretending we weren’t frustrated about [our goaltending issues].”
But Yeo tried not to single out Kuemper or Backstrom on Monday, probably because he knows just how desperately the team needs them.
Not many options
Minor leaguers Johan Gustafsson and John Curry are not considered answers, and Harding suffered from severe dehydration in his second game with Iowa on Dec. 6, was hospitalized and has been back in the Twin Cities since.
The Wild hopes Harding can return after the Christmas break, but the reality is hockey is simply not conducive to Harding’s illness when the triggers are heat, stress and exhaustion.
General Manager Chuck Fletcher could make a trade, but then the Wild likely would need to keep three goalies on its 23-man roster because Kuemper cannot be sent to the minors without waivers (he surely would be claimed) and Backstrom has a no-move clause.
Plus, there aren’t a lot of goalies that would be clear upgrades on the trade market. Rumored names include Carolina’s Cam Ward ($6.3 million cap hit this season and next), Viktor Fasth (struggling in Edmonton), Martin Brodeur (downslope of career, hanging on in St. Louis) and maybe Toronto’s James Reimer or Buffalo’s Michal Neuvirth.
It will be very difficult for another goalie to come to the Wild’s rescue.
“I remember last year at this same time we were struggling and things were going downhill, and then we came out of it,” Suter said. “Hopefully we can do the same here.”