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Wild keep goalie Josh Harding off NHL free-agent market with 3-year, $5.7 million deal

When the Minnesota Wild led the NHL at the 30-game mark last season, before they collapsed and missed the playoffs for a fourth straight year, good goaltending was a big reason.

Not just Niklas Backstrom, but Josh Harding, too.

So they wanted to bring both of them back. The Wild re-signed Harding on Tuesday to a three-year, $5.7 million contract, keeping him from becoming an unrestricted free agent.

"That's part of the reason we didn't trade him at the deadline," general manager Chuck Fletcher said. "We think our one-two tandem is as good as any other team's one-two tandem, and we didn't see any reason to change."

The 28-year-old Harding has been a backup throughout his NHL life, but he played in a career-high 34 games last season after missing all of the 2010-11 season due to torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his right knee sustained that September in a preseason game. Harding was 13-12-4 with a 2.62 goals-against average and .917 save percentage over 30 starts.

"My goal was to stay with the Wild, and I was really hoping that we could work something out," Harding said. "I was ready to test the market, but my number one option was to stay here."

Harding will make $1.5 million this season and $2.1 million in each of the following two seasons. Neither Fletcher nor Harding could have envisioned a contract like this while he was rehabilitating his knee, about as devastating of an injury as a goalie can get. But all that hard work in the training room paid off.

"Had he not injured his knee, he probably would've been one of the more sought-after free agents last summer. It's a funny game," Fletcher said. "I was more concerned about a player missing an entire year of hockey than I was the knee, but I think he came back mentally stronger after facing a lot of adversity."

Backstrom has been the Wild's primary goalie since 2006. He is about to begin the last year of his contract, however, and he will turn 35 next February. Fletcher said signing Harding had little to do with Backstrom and more to do with the organization's faith in its 2002 second-round draft pick.

But with prospects Matt Hackett and Darcy Kuemper waiting for their opportunity—they will likely share time in goal for the AHL affiliate Houston Aeros—the Wild are assured of having one experienced goalie next season should Backstrom not be back for the 2013-14 season.

Harding is 41-51-8 with a 2.65 GAA and .916 save percentage for his career, spanning 117 games and 95 starts. He said he realizes the strength of his tandem with Backstrom but also said he is not interested in simply being the backup again.

"I pride myself in being a team-first guy, but I'm going to make it hard on them," Harding said. "I think I proved that a lot last year. I still know there's a lot left in me. I just want to make it a difficult decision for them, who to put out there."

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Follow Dave Campbell on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/DaveCampbellAP

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