Depending on your point of view, the Minnesota Wild had a season that either met or surpassed expectations. While that’s obviously a very vague statement, many expected this team to be a serious threat in the Western Conference with what they did last summer, while others didn’t think that the additions of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter were enough to put them over the top.
Regardless of what point of view one falls on, there’s no doubt that it was a season that could be considered a success for the Wild. They managed to make it into the postseason, found some pretty key young players moving forward, and established themselves as an attractive destination for players in the future.
Their goaltending was a large part of their success for a good chunk of the 2013 season. Niklas Backstrom had a fine season, but struggled at times. When Backstrom couldn’t go in the postseason, Josh Harding was fantastic, proving to be one of the most inspirational stories in sports.
It’s that goaltending situation that is going to be a situation to keep an eye on this summer. With Backstrom set to hit free agency, one has to wonder if the Wild will look at promoting Harding, health issues and all, to the no. 1 spot, while riding with Darcy Kuemper as the no. 2 guy.
Kuemper was forced into quite a bit of time in the playoffs as well, when Harding couldn’t go because of his own injury issues. He didn’t start a game, but played in a pair of contests in relief, failing to slow down the Chicago Blackhawks. Nonetheless, he’s a kid with plenty of potential moving forward.
Backstrom is the key here. He’s 35 and likely looking for the last contract of his career. He’ll have no shortage of takers as a veteran goaltender. But how much of a pay cut is he willing to take off of his $6 million cap hit? The Wild likely wouldn’t feel too bad about cutting him loose, given the depth that they do have.
Harding is counting on being back and being ready to role next season, even with his uncertain future health-wise. If he can come out and perform like he did in that first round series against Chicago, the Wild would have no reservations about letting Backstrom walk, and rolling with a combination of Harding and Kuemper next season.
That’s a pair that has the potential to be one of the better duos in the league, assuming both are able to remain healthy. That is the true question. There will likely be dialogue between Harding and the organization to determine just that. If he says and looks ready to go, we could be looking at a Harding-Kuemper pair next season, signalling Backstrom’s end in Minnesota.
Regardless of how it ends up shaking out, though, this situation is going to be one worth monitoring for the Wild, and could play a heavy role in what they are able to accomplish next season.