According to Minnesota Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo, Josh Harding is ready to resume practicing with the team. “I had a brief conversation with him,” he said. “And he was feeling very good. His word, actually, was great. And even just looking at him, I think he looks great. So we’ll talk some more about what the plan is going forward.” Harding, the 38th overall pick in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, hasn’t played since February 7th after problems with his medication to treat his MS kicked in. In the four games he played before being taken out of the lineup, Harding posted a 1-1-0 record with a 2.92 goals against average and a .885 save percentage while notching the team’s only shutout of the season.
While this is certainly good news, don’t get too excited, Wild fans. It’s going to take him a while to get back in game shape after missing practice for nearly a month. With 19 games to go, the best goaltender in franchise history (Niklas Backstrom) playing rock solid every night, and a more than capable goalie in Matt Hackett backing him up, I would be surprised if Harding receives more than two or three starts—and they certainly won’t be any time soon.
If it’s going to take him longer than a few games to get back in the lineup, don’t be surprised to see the Wild swap backups again like they did earlier in the season. Hackett’s play deserved a call up, but he has yet to take to NHL ice in either a starting or relief role so far this season and needs to be kept sharp. With the next back-to-back series not until March 29th and 30th, it’s unlikely Backstrom will be relieved until then. There’s a good reason why Backstrom has been getting most of the starts—he’s a rock, posting a 15-7-2 record with a 2.32 goals against average and .917 save percentage. That’s not too bad for a goalie in a contract year.
With the emergence of the Wild’s promising young goalies, and a very respectable season by Harding last year, it was almost a foregone conclusion that Minnesota would drop Backstrom and his $6 Million a year salary like a hot pan. Unfortunately, it looks like Harding will be unable to claim the starting role as the franchise goaltender he was projected to be. That doesn’t make his many accomplishments any less. Harding was dominant in the WHL, collecting both the MVP and Goaltender of the Year awards for the 2002-2003 season and has won two Silver medals while representing Canada at both the junior and men’s World Championships.
Harding may never be Minnesota’s No. 1 goaltender, but he’s No. 1 in the hearts of most fans. Maybe, just maybe, that’s what matters most.