Since their debut season as a new expansion franchise Minnesota has always been that thorn in the side of Cup contenders. That's always how I've felt about them anyway, a very similar team to Nashville (that defense first dynamic). The New Jersey Devils proved that type of system can work for a team lacking superstar scoring talent. But you enter a whole new world of woe when you have no scoring talent whatsoever.. which is how the Wild's season played out last year. 177 goals for (17 less than the 29th ranked offense) just isn't enough to compete for a playoff spot. In my mind their 81pts (3rd worst campaign ever) is actually the worst season they've played to date: considering the other two worse seasons were their first in the league with a ramshackle expansion draft team.
That could all change this year with the infusion of new alternate captains Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. All of a sudden the Wild aren't a cap floor team anymore.. they're $1.3mil under the soft summer cap. While I would still rate the young defensive core questionably there is no doubt that this team looks much better than last year's. The goaltending duties however, will be handled by familiar faces.
Nik Backstrom's 4 year $6mil per contract will expire after the end of this season, and a lot of people are starting to doubt his durability. He's only played more than 60 games once in his 7 year career and to me that isn't enough to garner a $6mil contract. His first four seasons in the show he posted a goals against average around 2.10-2.20 and a save percentage greater than 92%. The past 3 seasons he's thrown up around a 2.50gaa and dropped to about a 91sv%. It doesn't seem like a lot, but that's the difference between a vezina contender and an average NHL goalie. At 34 I believe his game is deteriorating, but with a revamped team in front of him and a solid back-up behind him I think it's reasonable to expect 50-60 games and some better results this year.
At 28 and with just 117 NHL contests under his belt you have to think time is running out on Josh Harding. After missing an entire season with a right knee injury he did make a solid comeback last year helping out with 34 games of workload for a struggling Wild team. His numbers were very similar to Backstrom's of last year so it seems like the young and untested team in front of the veteran goalies was the problem. It wouldn't be out of the question to say Harding might challenge and take the starting job from Backstrom, but with that knee in mind it's hard to say definitively.
Are you wondering if there might be an even darker dark-horse to take the reins in Minny? Look no further than Matt Hackett, nephew of NHL vet Jeff Hackett. The 22-year-old now has parts of 4 AHL seasons under his belt (100-58-11 record) and got his feet wet going 3-6 with a 2.37gaa in parts of 12 games with the Wild last year. There's no doubt of his upside, so I think the Wild (who would now seem to be building a Stanley Cup contending team) would be wise to slide him into a back-up role and find a suitor for one of Backstrom or Harding.
Behind Hackett is Darcy Kuemper, a 6'5" Saskatoon product. Also a 22 years of age, he had trouble because of his position on the depth chart last year. He managed to get into 8 games for the Ontario Reign of the ECHL (where he was dominate btw 1.74gaa, 94.1sv%) and 19 for the Aeros in Houston (2.36gaa, 92.3sv%). Great numbers for a rookie professional season, and all the more reason for the Wild to get dealing on one of the NHL tendys. He needs more starts to assess his actual potential.
The youngest of the Wild goaltending prospects also participated in his first full professional season last year, but in Sweden. Johan Gustaffson (who probably owns the most stereotypical Swedish hockey-name) will likely be an AHL player this season where he'll make $60,000 as a 20-year-old. To be fair he might be ahead of Hackett and Kuemper on his development curve as he posted an outstanding 1.68gaa and a 93.2sv% in 29 games for Lulea of the Elitserien. I realize the Swedish Elite League isn't the NHL, but a teenager who posts that type of numbers playing men is something to keep an eye on.
The Wild have a great crop of goaltenders here. Backstrom's star is fading though, and Harding is questionable at this point because of his past knee issues. There's still a lot of noise about Harding, and a trading partner might not be too hard to find for a goalie who could possibly give a team 40 starts for $1.9mil. Then they have 3 very promising prospects, any one of whom could legitimately steal the show at training camp. However, because of Backstrom's inconsistency in recent seasons and Harding's right knee I can't justify going any higher than 7 rage-filled blocker haymakers to the orbital bone.