Like every other organization in the NHL the Minnesota Wild entered the 2013-14 season with a few question marks. A combination of limited cap space and emerging young talent had kept the Wild quiet during free agency. They shied away from plugging veterans into vacant roles (with a few exceptions) and instead used their prospect depth to flesh out the roster. There was one position where that wasn’t the case though. A lack of NHL ready talent and an expiring contract had left the Minnesota Wild wondering who their opening night starter in net would be.
The problem at hand was born out of circumstance. Niklas Backstrom had held the starting role since the 2006-07 season but his four-year, $24 million deal had expired at the end of the lockout shortened season. His backup, Josh Harding, had been crowned the starter-in-waiting until he was sidelined for the majority of the year after being diagnosed with MS. With Harding’s NHL future in doubt the Wild were without a viable starting option on the roster.
Bringing Back the Veteran
To make matters worse the free agent market for goaltenders was a wasteland of mediocrity. The possibility of acquiring a starting caliber goalie via treade was on the table (and nearly executed when the Wild tried to acquire Jonathan Bernier from the LA Kings) but in the end the organization decided to go with a known commodity, signing a 35 year old Backstrom to a three-year deal worth $10.25 million.
That deal would turn out to be a costly mistake for Minnesota. An injury derailed his chance to retain the starting position just one game into the season and it turned out to be an omen for the rest of 2013-14. Nagging injuries would constantly plague him throughout the season, limiting him to just 21 appearances before being shut down for good after the trade deadline.
In those appearances he was a shell of his former self. The once dominant netminder had lost all of the lateral quickness he had once possessed and his veteran savviness couldn’t compensate for it. As a result he turned in his worst season as an NHLer, posting a 5-11-2 record, 3.02 GAA and a .899 sv%.
Luckily for the Wild Josh Harding was waiting in the wings. Despite his diagnosis of MS he had returned for the 2013-14 campaign ready for the opportunity to make an impact. What he didn’t know was just how much of an impact he would have on the organization.
While Backstrom struggled to stay on the ice Harding was making the most of his time on it. In the first month of the season alone he posted a 5-2-1 record, allowing no more than two goals in any game. By the time November rolled around he had built upon his streak of dominant performances. In his 12 starts that month he had gone 8-2-2 and firmly cemented himself in the discussion for the Vezina trophy.
The 2013 Masterton Trophy winner (awarded to the player who “best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.”) would see his season derail in December though. Following a December 17th win over the Vancouver Canucks Harding and the Minnesota Wild announced that he would be sidelined for a week due to a scheduled adjustment with his medication.
Harding returned to action on December 29th but the comeback was short-lived. After a December 31st loss to the St. Louis Blues it was announced that Harding would return to the IR after feeling ill. He has yet to be officially shut down for the season but it is clear that Harding has seen his last action of the 2013-14 NHL season.
Rise of the Rookie
With Harding sidelined and Backstrom in a state of constant impairment the Wild needed someone to fill the vacant spot. With few options available to them they decided to bring up 23 year old rookie Darcy Kuemper to play sidekick to Backstrom’s leading man.
It wasn’t the first time that Kuemper had joined the NHL team in 2013-14. In October he filled in for an ailing Backstrom and started a single game against the Toronto Maple Leafs. He failed to make it out of the 2nd period, surrendering three goals on just seven shots. Less than a month later he returned to NHL action and submitted a nearly identical performance. In relief for Harding he allowed three goals on nine shots.
After spending two months with the Iowa Wild he finally returned to an NHL sheet of ice. Things didn’t exactly go as they did before though. In his first start since Harding went down he produced the most dominant performance of his young career. Playing against the Kings in Los Angeles he stopped 39 of the 40 shots he faced and denied all four shootout attempts in the win.
Just three games later he returned to the starting role and earned his first career shutout in a win against the Nashville Predators, and thus began his reign. He would go on to start 13 of the Wild’s next 14 games, a stretch in which he was 9-2-2 with a save percentage of .926.
By the time the trade deadline rolled around the Minnesota Wild believed that Kuemper had earned the opportunity to finish the season as the organization’s top goalie. With that being the case they turned their attention towards bringing in a veteran backup to further strengthen netminding core.
The Bryzgalov Resurrection
By the time the trade deadline descended into its final hour the Minnesota Wild had been linked to every goalie that could potentially be dealt. First came the reports that the legendary Martin Brodeur would be making his final appearance in New Jersey before being shipped off to Minnesota. Then came the story that Halak would be the Wild’s prefered move instead. None of those rumors would ever come to fruition, and instead it was Ilya Bryzgalov who would be making the move to Minnesota.
The 2013-14 season hadn’t gotten off on the best foot for Bryzgalov. After receiving the biggest compliance buyout in league history (at least until Vinny Lecavalier topped it a few days later) during the offseason he had yet to sign a contract with a professional team. It wasn’t until the season was nearly two months old when the Edmonton Oilers, a squad in desperate need of goaltending, finally offered the 33 year old Russian an NHL deal.
In his short time with the Oilers he shifted from a backup role to a starting one, posting a 5-8-5 record and a .907 sv% in 20 appearances. The numbers were nowhere near those he had put up with the Phoenix Coyotes so many years ago but they were enough to catch the attention of teams who were in need of a veteran presence.
When the Oilers acquired goalies Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth prior to the deadline it set the inevitable in motion. Just an hour later it was announced that Bryzgalov would be heading to the land of 10,000 lakes for a 2014 fourth-round draft pick.
The Unexpected Arrival of a Goalie Controversy
With the deadline in the rearview mirror the Minnesota Wild began their final push to the playoffs with Kuemper firmly entrenched as the starter and Bryzgalov providing backup. They were five points clear of the Dallas Stars for the top Wild Card spot in the Western Conference when the two teams met on March 8th in Dallas. Just 20 days later they would be on the verge of collapse.
In those 20 days the Wild had gone 3-5-4 and saw their five point cushion diminish to a single point. Although the offense had continued to click, posting 2.67 goals per contest, the typically frugal defense and goaltending had begun to show signs of cracking.
Darcy Kuemper’s struggles were particularly worrying for Minnesota. In the 20 day span he was 1-5-2 and had given up three or more goals in six of those eight games, the same total he had posted in his previous 18 appearances. His save percentage plummeted to .915 (.894 during that span) and the confidence that was once overflowing had vanished. For the first time since the game against the Montreal Canadiens he looked like a rookie goalie.
Bryzgalov on the other hand appeared to be comfortable in his new surroundings. Although his save percentage was a pedestrian .900 in his first five appearances he did manage to go 2-0-2. As the wins mounted for Bryzgalov and the losses piled on Kuemper the inevitable question was finally asked; should Bryzgalov be #1?
That question gained a whole lot of traction on March 27th when the Wild were handed an embarrassing 5-1 loss to the St Louis Blues. Although Kuemper could hardly be blamed for the loss, there was cause for concern. In what should have been a statement game for the organization Kuemper had come up empty handed yet again. His deteriorating performance and lack of confidence could only mean one thing; it was time to give Bryzgalov a chance.
In the two chances that Bryzgalov has received he has been spectacular. His 23 save performance against the Phoenix Coyotes boosted Minnesota’s Wild Card lead to three points and his 18 save effort against the LA Kings gave the Wild their second win in a row. Those two wins have boosted his record to 4-0-2 with the Wild, giving him three more wins than Kuemper over the same time period.
With six games left in the regular season the Wild have a decision to make. Will they allow Kuemper the time to regain his footing or will they give Bryzgalov the chance to show the NHL that he is not a thing of the past? Only the Wild know the answer to that question. But we do know one thing. If the Wild happen to make an impact on the playoffs they will have done so with the Motley Crew of netminders.
Adam is based out of White Bear Lake, MN and covers the Minnesota Wild for THW.