The Minnesota Wild are headed into their first offseason since making the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in five years with one of the most expensive contract charts in the league. That said, there is the touchy business of choosing to sign or release unrestricted free agents. This year, forwards Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Matt Cullen and Stephane Veilleux, defensemen Drew Bagnall, Brett Clark and Justin Falk and No. 1 goaltender Niklas Backstrom are all UFAs.
For the first time in a while, Minnesota’s goaltending looks a little “iffy” at the moment. Since 2006, Minnesota has had a rock in net with Niklas Backstrom manning the crease. Josh Harding essentially had the starting position he was drafted for stolen right out from underneath his pads and has yet to reclaim it. What’s more, with an aging and (lately) injury-prone Backstrom, it should be easier for the younger goaltender to regain his position. Unfortunately, Harding’s goal to be Minnesota No. 1 franchise netminder has become complicated by his struggles with multiple sclerosis. Throw in the giant crowned prince of Wild goaltending in Darcy Kuemper and the superbly talented Swede Johan Gustafsson right behind him, and Harding’s hopes and dreams don’t appear likely.
As you can see, Minnesota goaltending does look to be set in the future, but what about the present? The Wild just flat-out cannot afford Backstrom at his current price, nor should they have to. Nik is a good goalie, but there’s no way his contract should be more expensive than two-time Vezina winner, Stanley Cup Champion and 2011 Conn Smythe trophy winner Tim Thomas. If the best goaltender in Wild franchise history wants to return to Minnesota, he’ll need to take the home town discount and big time because there’s no way he’s getting another $6 million per year contract.
To make matters more interesting, Harding’s performance in the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs was nothing short of amazing for a goaltender facing what he’s faced in the past year. Harding said himself that he’d like to play all 82 games next season. If he’s feeling great and his doctors have a handle on his medications, he could make Backstrom expendable. Kuemper is more than ready to backup Harding fulltime next season, and Gustafsson will likely make his North American debut with the Iowa Wild either way.
If Minnesota lets Backstrom walk, that makes the signing of Jeff Deslauriers important. With the talented youngsters waiting in the wings, Deslauriers, acquired in a 2013 trade deadline deal with the Anaheim Ducks, will likely never get a crack at the Wild net. However, with 62 games of NHL experience and a 23-32-4 NHL record under his belt, he brings invaluable experience as an AHL goaltender and emergency backup if need be.
That wraps up this series on Minnesota’s potential UFAs. Stay tuned as Gone Puck Wild begins another covering the Wild’s RFAs.