What Are the Minnesota Wild's Best Options in Goal with Josh Harding Out?
Minnesota Wild goalie Josh Harding has officially been out with multiple sclerosis medication issues since January 2—a full month—perhaps prompting a difficult decision on general manager Chuck Fletcher’s part. Should he, and, more importantly, will he address the absence in net via trade or free agency?
Ten points out of the final Central Division playoff spot, the aptly named Wild are holding down the first wild-card berth in the Western Conference with a record of 29-21-7. However, Minnesota is just three points up on the ninth-place Phoenix Coyotes, who have two games in hand.
The Wild are also in danger of losing ground, having posted more losses over the last 11 games than wins. Minnesota is 5-4-2 in that stretch, which simply isn’t good enough in a conference where teams typically need 95-plus points to clinch a berth. Minnesota is currently on pace for 94.
It’s clear Fletcher must do something. Assuming it’s in net, here are the Wild’s best options with Harding out.
5. Buy Him out
Buying out Harding come the offseason is a legitimate option, but it takes the No. 5 spot on this list, because it’s simply the worst one available to the Wild.
Sure, Minnesota signed Harding to his current three-year deal back in June 2012 before anyone, including the goalie, knew about the illness (he was diagnosed a few months later). So, it’s not like the team was aware about what exactly the future would hold when it got him under contract. I mean, it’s doubtful they or Harding even do now.
Still, buying him out would be immensely unpopular with the team’s fans and paint the Wild negatively in the media. They’d essentially be giving up on a goalie who just won the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy and, despite being out, still leads the league in goals-against average (1.65).
Granted, that average might be as low as it is because Harding has played only 29 games due to his illness. However, New Jersey Devils goalie Cory Schneider, who has the second-lowest average (1.91), has played in the same amount of games. The third-place Frederik Andersen of the Anaheim Ducks (1.94) has played in just 17.
The fact is, multiple sclerosis and all, Harding has played elite-level hockey in net this season and there’s every reason to believe he can continue to do so upon his return. And, even under the bleak assumption he won’t be able to return this season, teams can’t buy out injured players.
As a result, Minnesota will only have the option of buying out a healthy goalie representing the biggest reason the team is currently in a playoff spot. Worded like that, it kind of proves just how ludicrous a move it would be.
4. Sign a Replacement Goalie Come Free Agency
Minnesota signing a new goalie come July 1 is another unlikely possibility, especially with former starter Niklas Backstrom signed through 2016.
Backstrom has been a disappointment over the last few seasons and even currently owns a save percentage below .900, which makes Harding’s performance this season all the more impressive. It clearly isn’t a result of head coach Mike Yeo’s system. I mean, it’s either that or Backstrom has become just that bad.
Either way, if Minnesota made one mistake signing a goalie, it has turned out not to be Harding, but ironically Backstrom this past summer. Backstrom, who will soon be 36, really hasn’t had a good season since 2008-09, making the decision to give him a three-year contract a dubious one at best.
One can actually make the case that the Wild should consider buying out Backstrom instead of Harding. With goalies like Ryan Miller and Jaroslav Halak set to become unrestricted free agents, it might actually be an avenue worth exploring.
However, with Backstrom making an average of $3.417 million, the Wild would have to pay him $1.292 million over the next four seasons in the event of a buyout. Considering the rich twin contracts owner Craig Leipold handed out to Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, that just isn’t going to happen.
Salary information provided by Cap Geek.
3. Trade for an Up-and-Coming Goalie
While the Minnesota Wild trading for a young goalie on the surface seems like a good idea, it just wouldn’t work out for similar reasons explained in previous slides.
Getting a goalie like, for one example, Toronto Maple Leaf James Reimer, would undoubtedly give the Wild a viable option in net should Harding remain out. Should a worst-case scenario regarding Harding’s unfortunate situation be realized, it will also give them a plan for the future.
The unethical implications of almost planning Harding to be out for an extended period of time aside, the Wild already have a good up-and-coming goalie in Darcy Kuemper.
As important as systemic redundancies may be, it just doesn’t make any sense for the Wild to give up presumably several valuable assets just to get their hands on a good-enough goalie when they already have one in Kuemper.
If replacing Backstrom with another goalie wasn’t realistic, it certainly isn’t realistic to replace one who’s actually playing well.
2. Ride It out and Give Kuemper the Net in the Meantime
This option, to give Kuemper the net, essentially represents the status quo, and in theory it’s a pretty decent one.
Kuemper has started the team’s last 10 games but more impressively has posted a 6-3-2 record overall this season. Giving him the net while Harding recovers on that basis alone seems like the best option.
However, there’s almost been a Jekyll and Hyde element to his game (and, really, to that of the Wild as a team). His 2.63 goals-against average and .913 save percentage have been decent under the circumstances, but, referring to the previous slide, he’s just been good enough, which isn’t.
He may have beaten the likes of the Chicago Blackhawks and Anaheim Ducks over the last 10 games, but he has also lost to the Calgary Flames as recently as Saturday night, giving up four goals in the process. He also got pulled in his previous outing against the Colorado Avalanche.
Kuemper has exceeded expectations for a 23-year-old with only eight appearances to his name prior to this season. However, it might be a tad unfair to put the weight of this team’s playoff aspirations on his shoulders. He still has some developing to do.
As much as the Wild’s options are limited here, with Harding out and Backstrom in sharp decline, the team should seriously think about finding another one.
1. Trade for a Veteran Goalie
Whereas trading for a young goalie should be out of the question, acquiring a veteran is actually Minnesota’s best option. Ideally, that veteran should be an unrestricted free agent, so as to limit the asking price.
By now, everyone has heard the rumors that the Wild have been looking into the availability of Miller. According to various sources, including to SI.com's Michael Straw, those rumors involved Dany Heatley, a first-round pick and one of Charlie Coyle and Mikael Granlund going the other way.
Those rumors have since been debunked, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, which is probably for the best.
Giving up a blue-chip prospect like Coyle or Granlund for a 33-year-old goalie exiting his prime is probably not the best move, especially with the trade far from guaranteeing a Stanley Cup, let alone a playoff spot.
That still doesn’t mean the Wild can’t use help in net (at a reasonable price). It also doesn’t mean the Wild should give up on acquiring Miller, as he would in fact be the ideal acquisition.
He’s an on-the-decline goalie that wouldn’t threaten Harding’s role as team starter but is still playing well (Miller has a .925 save percentage).
Make no mistake: A goalie like Miller, or Miller himself, is the solution here, because he would give the Wild the goaltending the team so desperately needs. The hypothetical trade would also allow Kuemper to properly develop in the American Hockey League.
With Kuemper exempt from waivers, per Cap Geek, the Wild would be able to go with a duo of Miller and Backstrom until Harding is healthy again, and then Harding and Backstrom next season (after allowing Miller to pursue free agency).
One would think the Sabres would be willing to trade Miller for something more reasonable than the king’s ransom mentioned above. Even if the above offer had been tabled, that’s what negotiations are for. And, even if the Sabres won’t budge, other options do exist.
Another goalie that fits the Miller mold would be Florida Panther Tim Thomas. While he hasn’t been exactly lights out this season (save percentage of .911), part of that might be as a result of the team in front of him. Minnesota has after all allowed 29 fewer goals than Florida.
Additionally, Thomas would give Minnesota both a temporary No. 1 and the ability to not rush Kuemper’s development. His age and below-average save percentage would theoretically limit Florida’s asking price too. Consider Thomas, whom admittedly has a no-movement clause, plan B.
What’s important to realize, though, is all these options are viable only if Harding is not able to make a return to action over the next few weeks. That’s a big “if,” not just due to the unpredictable nature of his illness but also his resiliency.
Harding has proven time and again since returning to the lineup after first being diagnosed that he’s not simply going to give up. He’s fought it admirably up until now. There’s every reason to believe he’ll continue to and return sooner rather than later.
That would be, bar none of the alternatives offered up in previous slides, Minnesota’s best option.