In sports, there’s always a steep learning curve.
Whether it be a pitcher learning a new pitch, or a quarterback learning a new offense, there are going to be growing pains.
Josh Harding’s season for the Minnesota Wild, this year, has been no different.
But something unexpected happened the following season.
Intent on driving the team to the playoffs, General Manager Doug Risebrough signed an unknown goaltender by the name of Niklas Backstrom—or, at least, unknown in American circles.
Backstrom was signed with the intent of providing some goaltending depth for the Wild, giving them a solid third-string goalie in the event that Fernandez went down with an injury. He had put up stellar numbers for Karpat Oulu in the Finnish Elite League, but was never drafted into the NHL.
The backup job was essentially Harding’s to lose and, unfortunately for the young Saskatchewan-native, Backstrom’s strong pre-season showing, coupled with an injury to Harding, caused him to do just that.
Harding put on a fantastic display down in the AHL, which ultimately led to his call up following the injury to Manny Fernandez.
Finally. A chance to win back the spot that was rightfully his.
The only problem was that he ran into one of the most impressive streaks in recent memory, as Backstrom compiled a 1.97 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage over 41 games.
But, the good news for Harding was that he was officially the back up.
He was in the NHL.
Flash forward to this last off season. Harding was coming off of a fantastic season, despite his record. He finished the season prior with just three victories, but with a 2.21 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage.
A restricted free agent, he was thought to be one of the team’s most valuable assets and was the focus of many a trade rumor involving the Wild.
But General Manager Chuck Fletcher realized that the team was in a transition period. He was confident in Backstrom’s ability to thrive in a system other than the defensive style that Jacques Lemaire coached, but he also realized the need to have a back up goaltender that was familiar with the players in front of him.
He also realized that, despite what fans of the Wild thought, Harding’s trade value was not necessarily as high as it could have been due in large part to a lack of exposure.
So Harding was signed to a one-year deal and Fletcher and Head Coach Todd Richards made a decision to try to get Harding more exposure, realizing that his value as a trade-able asset would only grow as the season progressed.
Harding came out for his first game of the season against the Kings on Oct. 8 and was anyone but the goalie that had showcased his talents in the backup role over the past few seasons. Six goals on 23 shots later, Harding left the ice, crestfallen—his confidence shattered.
Eight days later, he had a chance at redemption. Minnesota rolled into Edmonton a struggling team in need of a spark. A change in net was thought to give them just that.
Five goals on 19 shots later, Harding left the ice much the same as he did eight days earlier.
Suddenly, Harding’s stock was not quite as sky high as once though.
Everyone had assumed that Niklas Backstrom was a product of Lemaire’s system—that he was the one who would struggle this season.
To be fair, Backstrom has had his share of struggles as well. But they are not nearly as much as those of Josh Harding.
All of a sudden, with a more open system, Harding’s shortcomings are becoming more and more apparent.
Harding has struggled, this season, with his rebound control and with his propensity to use the butterfly position as a crutch, dropping down to his knees far too often.
In Lemaire’s system, these were things that were manageable. He could afford to give up the occasional rebound because of the fact that he was largely insulated by a collapsing defensive zone system. Defensemen were almost always there to direct the rebounds to the corners—a task that he should have been doing himself.
He was able to get away with dropping down into the butterfly more often, because the shots were coming from farther out. He could take away the bottom of the net and utilize his quick hands to snag or redirect the puck.
But now, in Richards’ system, he no longer has these luxuries. While the Wild aren’t necessarily giving up more scoring chances than last season, they are giving up more quality scoring chances. Harding can no longer afford to give up juicy rebounds into the slot, because the defense might not always be there to bail him out. He can no longer afford to use the butterfly position as a crutch, because the shots are not always coming from the perimeter anymore.
In recent games, it is easy to see that Harding is starting to grasp these things, but with the Wild chasing a playoff spot, he simply won’t get the playing time that he needs to shake this anytime soon.
But against Vancouver, a game after which he was diagnosed with the flu, he reverted to his old habits. He dropped to his knees far too often. He gave up far too many rebounds.
He continues to struggle, with the Wild firmly entrenched in a battle for the eighth and final playoff spot and as such, the player that was once thought of as the Wild’s most valuable asset has now slipped into a position where it’s debatable as to whether or not he is even trade-able.
His stock is steadily slipping and his shaky play has led many to question if he is even capable of being a starting goaltender in the NHL.
Goaltending is a position of confidence and right now, Harding has none. The only way that he will get his confidence back and increase his stock is through playing time. Unfortunately for him, with the Wild battling for the playoffs, increased playing time for their backup seems highly unlikely.