The most pressing question for the Wild when they return from the Olympic break rests with the men behind the masks. The Minnesota Wild goalies have seen arguably the most fluctuation in franchise history this season and have answered the call at nearly every turn. From the stellar first half of the season that Josh Harding had, where he was arguably the leading candidate for MVP in the NHL, to Darcy Kuemper handling his increased duties in January and February, it hasn’t been a smooth season between the pipes for Minnesota.
The uncertainty with the goaltenders begins with Harding, and there is plenty of it. Harding has not played since mid-January due to multiple sclerosis complications. No Wild front office member or credible source has provided an update on his condition since his departure from the team. There is yet to be a hint of his return to practice which is concerning for his future. While he is currently signed with the team through next year, his future with the team and even his hockey career are in jeopardy because of the disease. It is truly unfortunate for Harding who battled his way from the AHL to become the talk of the NHL because of his perseverance. As great of a story as it has been and as much as he has fans rooting for his success, he cannot be considered the long term solution at goalie if he continues to struggle with his health.
Niklas Backstrom received a significant pay cut this offseason in order to continue his tenure with the Minnesota Wild and they have received minimal contributions thus far this season. Backstrom, who will be 36 on February 13th, has been arguably the most consistent goalie in franchise history with exception to this season. His ability to be completely healthy will be imperative once the playoffs roll around, whether he is the starter or the backup.
As for the starter for at least the time being, Darcy Kuemper holds the keys to the cage until he proves he is incapable of being the center of attention. So far, he has held his own in the crease in the absence of two accomplished goalies. His future with the team looks to be bright, as he is a 23-year-old with the tremendous athleticism necessary to play goalie in today’s NHL. With his body of work this season and no other goalie showing consistent health, its likely Kuemper’s job to lose from here on out. He will be a restricted free agent at the end of the year, meaning the Wild is able to exclusively negotiate with him. The Wild will likely resign him and in doing so, dub Kuemper as the goalie of the future.
Kuemper’s health the rest of the season is extremely important if they are going to have any sort of success in the playoffs. He has already shown that he is able to handle the workload of a starting goalie as he has almost exclusively been between the pipes since Harding went down. The Olympic break could not have come at a better time for the Wild since they are in desperate need of Backstrom to heal and take over as the backup goalie. He now gets two weeks to recover from his abdominal injury and return to the ice and hopefully regain form. The stretch run will certainly test the Wild’s goaltending depth. But if the first half of the season is any indication, they will again answer the call.