While the Minnesota Wild does need another good defenseman and a scoring winger, the position Wild GM Chuck Fletcher may have to address first and foremost is goaltending.
With two days to go until the club’s game against Edmonton, former No. 1 goalie Niklas Backstrom missed today’s practice with abdominal stiffness. The franchise leader in nearly every goaltending category if not all of them, Backstrom has spent much of the past two seasons on the shelf, including all of last year’s brief playoff run. When healthy, Josh Harding has stepped in beautifully, but he hasn’t been able to stay healthy on a consistent basis the past two seasons. That’s what multiple sclerosis will do to you.
In the meantime, rookie Darcy Kuemper has been an absolute stud, posting an 8-3-2 record, a .917 save percentage, a 2.46 goals against average and a shutout in 15 games this season. Kuemper has played so well that Backstrom, even when healthy, hasn’t received a start since January 11th. But Kuemper can’t be counted on to lift this team to victory every night. He shouldn’t be expected to, either, as it takes more that good goaltending to win a game. However, if Kuemper goes down, the prospect of a deep playoff run looks quite bleak when you consider who’s behind him (an injured Backstrom, a sick Harding, Swedish rookie Johan Gustafsson and career minor-leaguer John Curry).
That said, it’s time to seriously consider signing or trading for another goaltender. Before I continue, let me reiterate that it’s highly unlikely that goaltender will come in the form of Buffalo’s Ryan Miller. St. Paul has been suspected to be the likely landing spot by writers and analysts around the league, but it’s not happening. Minnesota has no interest in signing Miller to a long term deal, especially considering he’s already on the wrong side of 30. Even if they did trade for him, is mortgaging the future worth it for a Stanley Cup now? As much as I would love to see Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter hoist the Cup this year, I would rather see guys like Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter, Jonas Brodin, Mathew Dumba, Darcy Kuemper, Gustav Olofsson and other blue-chip prospects to come hoist it a few times more.
With the lower salary cap, Fletcher is going to have to be frugal in his spending, whether it be picks, prospects or actual money. He’s got to find the best bang for his buck. Could that come in the form of New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur? Arguably the best goaltender to ever play the game, Brodeur is tired of sitting on the bench in New Jersey, and would likely approve of a trade if asked to waive his no-trade clause. Even with Cory Schneider cemented as the Devils’ new franchise netminder, the price for Brodeur would almost certainly include a goalie prospect and a high-end pick. Minnesota is about one good goalie prospect too short of making this trade comfortably.
Then there are some cheaper options–Washington’s Michal Neuvirth and Anaheim’s Viktor Fasth. Neuvirth wants out of Washington after being stuck behind Braden Holtby, and the 2014 second round pick acquired from Winnipeg for Devin Setoguchi may be just enough to pry him away from the Capitals. The same could be said for Fasth, who finds himself stuck on a very crowded goalie depth chart in Anaheim. However, the need for goaltenders around the league could inflate his stock to an unhealthy level, making Minnesota look elsewhere. If nothing else, there’s always free agent Jose Theodore, who hasn’t stopped looking at his phone since December while waiting for a call from Mr. Fletcher.
Minnesota’s goaltending situation has become something of a joke. A position that was once considered the team’s greatest strength has deteriorated into its greatest weakness. If the Wild are going to make the playoffs for the second consecutive year, goaltending needs to be addressed, and it needs to be addressed now. If Minnesota even survives the regular season with just Kuemper and Backstrom, it will be a major accomplishment, but it’s not going to lead to a deep playoff run–not unless this team is made of sterner stuff. The trade deadline is looming; will Fletcher pull the trigger, or is it going to be another early exit for head coach Mike Yeo and the Minnesota Wild?