It’s surely to be a topic of conversation among Minnesota Wild fans from now until the trade deadline in April and potentially even after that. Should the Minnesota Wild re-sign goaltender Niklas Backstrom to a contract extension or let him walk away into the promised land, known as the free-agent period where he could possibly demand more money than what he might get in Minnesota.
It’s a difficult question to answer given there are so many moving parts to this situation. The biggest is probably the health of Josh Harding along with how well Backstrom plays during this upcoming shortened season. Any signs of struggles early on from Backstrom and he’s surely to lose a significant amount of playing time to Harding. Which could then mean a demotion to the backup role if Harding was to get hot between the pipes.
First, let’s look at Harding as suitable number one netminder moving forward. He’s been knocking on the door over the past few years, ready to take the number one role from Backstrom and call it his own. He owns a career 2.65 GAA over the span of 6 seasons as a backup for a combined 117 games played. Last season was his heaviest workload, appearing in 34 games and matching his career numbers with an impressive 2.62 GAA and a .917 save percentage to go with 2 shutouts.
Then October of 2012 came and Harding’s life changed forever when he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. It’s a disease that is fairly new to the NHL given the rare condition amongst it’s players.
But Harding isn’t looking for a charity case and he’s most certainly not going to let his condition deter him from playing the game that he loves and helping the Wild win this season. The Wild are handling this like they would with any other goalie; Harding’s playing time will be determined by how well he plays.
Backstrom on the other hand has similar numbers over six seasons with the Wild, boasting a career GAA of 2.42 and a save percentage of .918. All this while playing 327 games, almost triple of what Harding has played.
There is no denying it, Backstrom is good, very good. But here’s where things turn against him. He’s 34-years of age to Harding’s 28. Not that 34 is old, but he could be looking for his last NHL contract, one that will secure him another 4-5 years in the show with an annual salary that will surely fund his own pension plan. Another strike against him.
Backstrom is set to become a free-agent this summer as we mentioned. He’s making $6 MM this season and although a huge raise won’t be in his future, it’s hard to fathom he takes a big demotion either. Providing he puts up numbers that match his career and he stays healthy, Backstrom could demand another $6-7 million per season moving forward. Too rich for the Wild’s blood one would think after handing out nearly $200 million to just two players last season.
Harding on the other hand is signed for the next two seasons after this one with an annual cap hit of just $1.9 million. Suddenly the scales have been tipped to the younger netminder based on salary alone.
Both goalies have put up exceptional numbers and given Backstrom’s six years of being a starter, he’ll cash in on the open market, if he gets that far.
It’s unlikely Minnesota will resign him, but only if Harding is healthy. The MS disease is a scary one and with many unknowns between it and playing in the NHL, the Wild will have to put their faith in the doctors and believe Josh when he says he’s ready to go. He could end up playing until he’s 40 with the condition, you just don’t know.
When April rolls around and the Wild are in the thick of the playoff hunt, the million dollar question will arise and do so often. Should the Wild trade Backstrom and get some value for him or lose him for nothing this summer? That question can only be answered by how well Harding is playing. If he’s matching Backstrom step for step in goal, it’s an easy answer, providing the Wild have no intention of re-signing him. If Harding struggles though, keeping Backstrom is again the easy answer as he could be the backbone to a deep playoff run.
There is one wild card in this situation and that is Matt Hackett who is expected to start the season in Houston with the affiliate Aeros.
In 12 games with the Wild last season, Hackett went 3-6 with a 2.38 GAA and a .921 save percentage. This season with the Aeros he’s 13-13-3 with a goals against of 2.62 and a save percentage of .907. And the best part, he’s only 22-years old.
I think we have our goaltender solution figured out for the foreseeable future in Minnesota.
There are a lot of questions as the Wild get set to embark on their twelfth season since their return to the Twin Cities (not counting the locked out season of 2004-05). When the puck drops the answers will become more clear. Until then, we’ll wait patiently and explore the various options the Wild have.