When Chuck Fletcher said early in the summer that he was willing to carry three goaltenders on his NHL roster, none of those three goaltenders were supposed to have a well-known fear of bears. He was talking about Niklas Backstrom, Josh Harding, and Darcy Kuemper.
Where We Are
It was announced Tuesday that Harding, the presumed started, had been injured in an off-ice incident that was later revealed to be an “altercation” with a teammate. It’s now been reported that Harding is expected to miss 2-3 months with what the team announced is a broken toe.
That leaves the Wild with Backstrom and presumably Kuemper, except that Kuemper is still without a contract. The negotiations between Kuemper and general manager Chuck Fletcher have taken a somewhat public turn as the two parties have neared training camp, which opens today.
Kuemper’s camp is reported to be asking $850K on a one-year, one-way deal. The Wild are reported to have countered a two-year deal that is two-way in the first year and one-way in the second. Financial terms of the Wild’s offer have not been revealed.
How Kuemper Could Not Be The Guy
At first glance Harding’s injury might have you thinking Advantage Kuemper, but the truth is a little more complicated.
He would be the no-brainer starter — at least if he won the job from Backstrom in camp, which many think he would — if he already had a contract. However, he doesn’t and the Wild must protect themselves and ensure that they’ve got two NHL-caliber goaltenders, which is why they signed Ilya Bryzgalov to a professional tryout (PTO) yesterday. That’s both the Wild protecting themselves and possibly Fletcher being just as tough of a negotiator as Kuemper’s agent. (Though he is certainly getting a lot less flak from Wild fans for the prolonged negotiations.)
If Kuemper waits long enough to sign a deal and the Wild decide to give Bryzgalov a contract to make sure they’ve got two goaltenders ready on day one, Kuemper may have blocked his only path to the NHL this season.
With Bryzgalov on contract the Wild will start the season with him and Backstrom as the tandem, but they still have Harding under contract and he will return. When Harding returns, it’s hard to imagine how the Wild dump one of the three goaltenders at the NHL level to clear room for Kuemper. A Maybe at the trade deadline, but that’s a long time from camp. And even if they do somehow clear space for him, he’s no better off than he would have been prior to a hypothetical Bryzgalov signing, with Harding and Backstrom still on contract.
How Kuemper Goes From Being #1 To Not Playing At All
Under the previous scenario, the scenario of three days ago, Kuemper plays NHL games this season. Even if Harding and Backstrom are healthy, Kuemper is likely to see at least some NHL time. Under the scenario outlined above, the scenario with Bryzgalov under contract, he plays zero NHL games. While he absolutely has the right to negotiate, play hard ball, and get the best deal he can, waiting any longer may mean that the best deal he can get has passed.
Make no mistake, Kuemper should be the Wild’s future in net. He and his agent and everyone else know that. That’s why this negotiation has been so drawn out. Kuemper has leverage. However, if he accepts the two-way deal that has been reportedly offered, he’s only 14 games from losing his waiver exemption. If he can win the starting job from Backstrom and Harding misses “months” as reported, Kuemper could have started his 14th game on November 13 (the team’s 15th game of the year, a best case scenario for Kuemper with Backstrom grabbing one night of the team’s only back-to-back at that point). If he can hit 14 games before Harding returns, he’ll have ostensibly given himself a one-way contract, since the team is unlikely to risk putting him on waivers.
I’m 100% in favor of Kuemper using his leverage and negotiating, but the Wild are going to be a better team with Backstrom and Kuemper as the tandem to start the season than with Bryzgalov and Backstrom. And if it’s Bryzgalov and Backstrom, we’re unlikely to see Kuemper in St. Paul at all this season. The best offer he has may be the one that’s on the table in front of him.
Dustin Nelson writes about news and the Minnesota Wild for The Hockey Writers.