Days before the start of training camp, the Wild’s goaltending soap opera took an unforeseen twist.
Josh Harding, looking to resurrect himself after missing the second half of last season because of complications from multiple sclerosis, has been sidelined by an ankle injury.
Harding didn’t take part in the team’s captain’s practices the past two days at Xcel Energy Center, is walking with the use of crutches and will miss at least the start of training camp when players take the ice Friday, according to multiple sources. The injury occurred off the ice and blindsided a team eager to see if Harding could return to his dominant form of last year’s first half.
General Manager Chuck Fletcher returned to the Twin Cities from Michigan, where the Wild participated in a prospect tournament, on Tuesday night. On Wednesday, Fletcher is expected to talk with orthopedic surgeon Joel Boyd to determine the extent of Harding’s injury. Fletcher and coach Mike Yeo will meet Wednesday, a day before players report to St. Paul.
Harding, 30, is in the final year of a contract that pays him $2.1 million and led the NHL in goals-against average (1.66) and saves percentage (93.3%) although he played only 29 games.
Veteran Niklas Backstrom, the winningest goalie in Wild history with 189 victories, is 36 and coming off season-ending abdominal and hip surgeries. But he said last week he was healthy and confident he could return to the form of two seasons ago when he tied for the league lead with 24 wins.
“Backy’s kind of been the forgotten soldier right now,” Yeo said Monday before learning Harding was injured. “Nobody even talks about him. He’s won a lot of hockey games for us, there’s been many games where I know he stole games for us. He’s a guy who can come in and do that again this year. I think he’ll be motivated.”
The team has been playing hardball with unsigned restricted free-agent goalie Darcy Kuemper. The Harding injury could have implications on that negotiation. Kuemper wanted a one-year, one-way contract; the Wild offered a two-year deal, with the first year being a two-way and the second year being a one-way.
However, if Harding’s injury will keep him out long-term, the team may look to bring a veteran in on a tryout. In fact, Fletcher already reached out to Ilya Bryzgalov. After Kuem- per sustained a concussion last season, the 34-year-old Bryzgalov helped the Wild into the playoffs with a 7-1-3 record and 2.12 goals-against average. Last month Bryzgalov said he hoped to return to Minnesota, but Fletcher was uninterested because Harding and Backstrom were healthy.
Harding didn’t reply to a text message Tuesday. Last week, he sat down with the Star Tribune and discussed how great he felt on and off the ice.
“It’s one of those summers where everything clicked, and I feel even better than I did last summer and feel like I’m in better shape,” Harding said. “With the year of knowledge of what I’m dealing with, with a different mind-set and different mentality about what I did this offseason, I think it’s definitely going to help out tremendously.
“Physically, mentally, knowing everything that’s been working for me, I believe I’m going to show I’m capable of playing a full season.”
Last year, Harding was in the midst of a sensational season, reeling off 18 victories by Dec. 17 before missing a road trip for what doctors felt would be a minor adjustment to his MS treatment.
That season would be stopped in its tracks. He returned to start two games, including one where the Wild blew a three-goal lead to the Islanders. He didn’t play again after Jan. 1 — the second season in a row he missed significant time due to the debilitating illness.
It’s clear Harding had a relapse.
“Without going into big details, one plus one equals two. The changing of the medication, the changing of the treatment over the Christmas break, things happened and things happened quick,” Harding said.
Last week, Harding ironically said the only thing that has kept him from being an everyday No. 1 is health. Even before being diagnosed with MS, Harding was often derailed by injuries.
Asked what his objectives were this season, Harding didn’t hesitate: “To stay healthy the entire season, and be available for every game, and give the team whatever they need from me, and try my best, and have fun while I do it.”
The first of those goals already seems unlikely.