Minnesota Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom, right, of Finland, and defenseman Justin Falk watch from the bench during NHL hockey training camp in St. Paul, Minn., Friday, Sept. 19, 2014. (AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt)
ST. PAUL, Minn. - The Minnesota Wild have started the season with the same big question as they finished the last one: Who can they count on in the net?
As training camp began, the Wild took their first step toward trying to build off the potential displayed last spring with their upset of Colorado in the playoffs. To advance past the second round this time, stability in the crease will be critical. So the fact that Niklas Backstrom was the only goalie with significant NHL experience under contract and on the ice for the first day of practice Friday was not the most promising sign.
"Unfortunately it's one of the story lines again, but that's the way it is right now," left wing Zach Parise said.
Darcy Kuemper was finally signed the night before. He has a two-year contract worth $2.5 million and was the top goalie down the stretch last season when Backstrom and Josh Harding were unavailable.
"I definitely am in camp to try to prove to the coaches and to the management that I can be that guy, and I'm going to do the best that I can to earn that spot," said the 24-year-old Kuemper, one of four goalies who started 19 or more games last season including the playoffs. "But I know that I will have to earn it."
Kuemper got a one-way deal, meaning he'll be paid the same whatever he league he's in, NHL or AHL. Negotiations with the restricted free agent were accelerated when the Wild learned Harding has a broken right foot, suffered Sunday in an unspecified off-the-ice incident. Harding has been placed on a suspended list, meaning he won't be paid or count against the salary cap while he's out.
"This is not by any means we're just throwing this guy aside and getting rid of him, but we needed to do something and now our focus is on the guys here," coach Mike Yeo said after practice.
Harding thrived last year when Backstrom was ailing, until illness related to his multiple sclerosis condition forced him out after December. Backstrom was bothered by midsection injuries, didn't play after January and had surgery in March. That month, the Wild traded for Ilya Bryzgalov, who played well down the stretch last season when Kuemper was out with a concussion.
Kuemper was 3-1 with a 2.03 goals against average in victory over the Avalanche, but he was hurt again in the seventh game of that series. In the next round against Chicago, Bryzgalov was back in.
"Knock on wood, but I don't think it can get really any worse than what it was last year. So obviously, a tough start to it," said right wing Jason Pominville, referring to Harding's injury, "but I think we'll keep our calm and hopefully we have the guys in place to step up."
Backstrom has returned at full strength, but he's 36 with career statistics that were a lot better his first three seasons with the Wild than the last five. He's been dominant at times in the past, but his days as an undisputed starter might be done.
"Us goalies grow up knowing that only one guy is going to play, so you pretty much have that competition since you're 6 or 7 years old," Backstrom said. "That's just part of the game."
Then there's Bryzgalov, the quirky 34-year-old who became a free agent but did not receive any contract offers. The Wild invited him to camp on a tryout basis.
"Enjoying the family, enjoying my time, enjoying the life. There's lots of beautiful things in the life to do beside hockey," Bryzgalov said, citing trips to Cyprus, Italy, Switzerland and elsewhere.
He spent his non-travelling time in his native Russia. Though he said he kept in shape, Bryzgalov said didn't skate at all. He enjoyed last season enough to take the Wild up on their offer.
"I love this team. I love the town. I like the players. I like the organization," he said.