Josh Harding (Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)
The Wild suspended goalie Josh Harding Thursday when he injured his foot after an altercation with a teammate – and Adam Proteau says Minnesota's netminding situation will be one of the league's most fascinating situations to watch this season.
Since the Minnesota Wild first appeared on an NHL ice rink in 2000, they’ve been relatively free of out-of-the-ordinary drama. But their goaltending predicament is shaping up to be one of the league’s most intriguing sagas to monitor this season – and that was before Thursday, when the franchise suspended presumptive No. 1 Josh Harding after he got into an altercation with a teammate, kicked a wall and fractured his foot.
Harding is expected to be sidelined for months by the injury, and left the team with little choice but to come down hard on him. Details of the scuffle he engaged in (including the name of the teammate he clashed with) weren’t made public, but by suspending him, the Wild took his $1.9 million salary cap hit off the books and gave that money to restricted free agent Darcy Kuemper.
But even then, Minnesota’s goaltending saga is far from settled.
In addition to re-signing Kuemper – who stepped up nicely as an NHL rookie last season (12-8-4 record, 2.43 goals-against average, .915 save percentage) when Harding was sidelined with treatment for Multiple Sclerosis – on Thursday, GM Chuck Fletcher invited veteran Ilya Bryzgalov to training camp on a tryout. And of course, longtime Wild netminder Niklas Backstrom is still under contract, although at age 36 and with his history of back woes, he can’t be relied on.
And that’s the thing about the Wild’s goalies – none of them can be seen as locks to do anything this season. Kuemper is just 24 and hasn’t established himself as a go-to guy; Bryzgalov performed admirably in his first stint with Minnesota in 2013-14 (7-1-3, 2.12 G.A.A., .911 SP), but didn’t look nearly as good in the playoffs (3-6, 2.63 G.A.A., .885 SP); and nobody knows what to expect from Harding when he returns.
On a team with lofty expectations – one that signed Thomas Vanek to a three-year, $19.5-million deal in the summer – the lack of a clear-cut No. 1 has to be worrisome. They’re like the Anaheim Ducks in that regard – and like the Ducks, they also have enough cap space available (more than $6 million after Harding’s suspension and Kuemper’s two-year deal are factored in) to make additional moves during the season.
With a few exceptions (Henrik Lundqvist, Carey Price, Jonathan Quick, Roberto Luongo), there aren't many bona fide starters whom a team can depend on in the modern-day NHL. By the end of the year, one of the aforementioned Wild goalies may have grabbed the No. 1 role and made it his own, but until that happens, the potential for more drama between Minnesota's pipes will be at least as great as it’s ever been.