Entering 2014, no goaltender in the NHL was hotter than Harding. After a lengthy absence as he adapted to the medication he was taking to combat multiple sclerosis, Harding was thrown into the fire in the spring of 2013, taking over as Minnesota’s playoff starter against the Chicago Blackhawks after an injury to No. 1 goalie Niklas Backstrom.
He performed pretty well, earning praise from his opponents, but he was capable of more.
Harding took over the starting job on merit in the early part of 2013-14, going 18-7-3 over 29 games and posting a league-leading .933 save percentage. Despite his MS diagnosis, it appeared the 30-year-old was primed to play a significant role in the majors for the foreseeable future.
Then it all stopped.
Harding played his last game of the season on December 31, after which he was sidelined by complications relating to his MS. The Wild ended up rotating through a series of goaltenders as the season went on while Harding watched from the sidelines, eventually seeing his team eliminated in the second round of the playoffs.
Harding worked hard over the summer and showed well in the early part of training camp. And then he broke his foot.
He has been off the radar ever since, suspended by the team for a non-hockey-related injury while he recuperated.
Now he’s been medically cleared to play, but Michael Russo of the Star Tribune reports the Wild have decided that the best course of action is to get him into some games at the AHL level, which means waiving the player:
Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher explained to Russo that he felt an AHL conditioning stint simply wasn’t enough time to make sure Harding was ready to play:
A two-week conditioning stint, that to me made no sense. He needs to play games. Let’s just get him to Iowa and get him going and not have any artificial timetable attached to it. Things change so quickly as we’ve seen the past several seasons with any situation, never mind our goaltending situation. So our thought right now is let’s just get him down, get him a part of the group and let him get a chance to get his game going, so when we do need him, he’s ready to go. We’ll see how things play out.
Part of the risk is that a team in a more desperate goaltending position might decide to take a chance on Harding.
He has proven he can play and play well when healthy, and he’s a pending unrestricted free agent with a modest cap hit. Russo writes that at this point in the year he’d take up a little under $1.5 million against the salary cap.
It’s a pretty significant risk because there are all kinds of teams that might be able to make use of Harding.
The struggling Columbus Blue Jackets have a pretty early slot in the waiver priority list (behind only Buffalo and Carolina) and some need. The team is 5-4-0 when Sergei Bobrovsky plays but just 1-6-1 when either of the team’s backups dress. Backup Curtis McElhinney is on a one-year, $650,000 deal and could easily be buried in the minors to make space.
If the Blue Jackets pass, there are plenty of other clubs that could use a backup goalie.
Dallas just cleared cap space and is currently employing the terrible Anders Lindback. New Jersey has started No. 1 goalie Cory Schneider in all 18 of its games, which isn’t a healthy thing to do over the long haul. San Jose’s Alex Stalock is sidelined indefinitely after knee surgery, opening up a spot. Anaheim is currently relying on Jason LaBarbera to spell starter Frederik Andersen.
There are a lot of teams that could use a cheap and capable option and might be willing to gamble on Harding to fill a slot.
Then there are those clubs that are desperate for any kind of goaltending help, notably the Edmonton Oilers. Edmonton decided to gamble on a pair of promising backups (Ben Scrivens, Viktor Fasth) and has been let down badly in the early going.
According to Sporting Charts, the Oilers have the worst save percentage in the league, so they might be willing to take a chance on Harding.
Is Harding a good gamble? It really depends on how desperate the team considering him is. After nearly a year without a start, rust is going to be a factor.
It’s unfortunate, but Harding’s illness and track record of injury are also going to be taken into account. There is a pretty decent chance that he won’t work out for whichever team claims him, but that’s set against the exceptional play he could provide if things go well.
His career .918 save percentage makes him on balance a starting-calibre goalie when he has played in the past.
He’s probably worth the risk, at least for a team in need of upgrading its backup position. Dallas and Columbus both seem like logical destinations, given that they have high expectations and terrible backup goalies on contracts low enough to be buried in the minors.