Until recent years Minnesota has had a dearth of talent in their goaltending prospect pool. Of the six goaltenders drafted in Doug Risebrough’s regime, only two spent much time with the Wild or in their farm system—Josh Harding and Anton Khudobin. The others—Barry Brust, Miroslav Kopriva, Kristofer Westblom and Niko Hovinen—never fit into the franchise’s future or never left their respective European leagues.
Thus, when Chuck Fletcher took over, the only young goaltenders of real use or potential value to the Wild were Harding and Khudobin. Harding, drafted in the 2nd round of the 2002 draft, was labeled as the goaltender of the future for the Wild before Niklas Backstrom came out of nowhere to steal the starting role right out from under his pads. Khudobin, a 2004 7th rounder, was also not too far behind, but there was nothing behind him in the prospect pool.
Fletcher addressed this concern quite quickly and effectively in the summer of 2009, his very first draft, snatching up Plymouth Whalers netminder Matt Hackett in the 3rd round and the Red Deer Rebels hulking backstopper Darcy Kuemper in the 6th round. He then continued to shore up the Wild’s goaltending pool in the next two drafts, taking Swedish netminder Johan Gustafsson in the 6th round of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft and Connecticut high school student Stephen Michalek in the 6th round of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.
With the progression of Hackett and Kuemper, the writing was on the wall for Anton Khudobin. He would eventually be traded at the 2010-11 trade deadline to the Boston Bruins for Providence Bruins defenseman Jeff Penner and the rights to Swede Mikko Lehtonen after posting an impressive 4-1-0 record, 1.23 goals-against-average and .961 save percentage with the Wild. While many fans would still like to see “Dobby” in Iron Range Red, it’s nice to see he’s finally getting to shine in a more permanent role as Tuukka Rask’s backup in Boston.
Hackett and Kuemper have done well in their respective goaltending careers, the former leading the Aeros to within two wins of winning the American Hockey League championship in 2010-11 and the latter being named the Western Hockey League’s Top Goaltender and Player of the Year in the same year. The video below shows a great save by Hackett when playing for the Aeros last season.
Drafted a year after them, Johan Gustafsson has also done quite well, backstopping the 2012 Swedish Under-20 World Junior Championship team to a 1-0 shutout win over Russia in the gold-medal game. Gustafsson was also nominated for the Swedish Elite League Rookie of the Year award for the 2011-12 season but lost out to fellow 2010 Wild draft pick Johan Larsson. Gustafsson has definitely made just as valid a claim for the title of Minnesota Wild franchise netminder as Hackett and Kuemper have.
With that said, the goal of these three prospects is to claim the Wild net for their own—and there’s only one net in Minnesota. Whether there is a season or not, Niklas Backstrom’s contract will be up at the end of the year and it’s unlikely he’ll be signed to a new one. Josh Harding was re-signed before the season to a new three-year contract and is just now in the prime of his goaltending career. If the lockout eats the whole season, it’s almost a sure bet that we’ve seen Backstrom’s last game in the red, white and green.
What that means is that Josh Harding will finally take over the starting role like he was supposed to originally, even if it’s just for a year or two. Hackett has proved during his short stint with the big club last season that he’s NHL ready and will do well learning the ropes from Harding. This leaves the Houston net wide open for the 6’5” Kuemper to take for his own for a season or so, probably backed up by Gustafsson once he makes the trip across the pond from Sweden.
However, should Harding prove he isn’t the #1 netminder he was drafted to be, you can be sure Hackett, Kuemper and Gustafsson will be there to capitalize on any opportunity that might present itself. At this point, Hackett and Kuemper are most likely to have the best shot at securing the starting role in Minnesota. Harding will eventually be traded or sign elsewhere in free agency and Gustafsson is most likely not one to keep waiting around for something to happen. If developed properly, he’ll make excellent trade bait for Chuck Fletcher, as would any one of Hackett or Kuemper should Gustafsson prove he’s the best of the talented trio.
In short, Minnesota is quite secure between the pipes and it isn’t hard to see why Fletcher opted not to pick up another goaltender this past June in Pittsburgh.