ST. PAUL, Minn. – The Minnesota Wild traded for goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov on Tuesday in conjunction with their decision to shut down ailing veteran Niklas Backstrom.
The Wild sent a fourth-round draft pick to Edmonton to complete the deal one day before the NHL trade deadline.
General manager Chuck Fletcher said the team must assume that neither Backstrom nor Josh Harding will be healthy enough to mind the net again this season. Rookie Darcy Kuemper has been stellar in their absence, but with a finishing stretch of 20 games in 37 days starting Saturday, he’s not enough.
“We have a lot of work ahead of us to get where we want to get to, but clearly having two quality goaltenders was very important,” Fletcher said.
Kuemper has started 15 straight games, so Bryzgalov is more for insurance, though he’s certain to have his time, too. The Wild are 14-4-2 in 2014 and in firm control of the first wild-card spot in the Western Conference playoff race.
“I will do my job as best I can. Making the decisions on who is supposed to play is not my job,” Bryzgalov said on a conference call. He added: “I look at this as a great opportunity for me to play, and yeah it’s like a new challenge.”
Backstrom has been bothered by injuries all season, most notably to his midsection that will probably prompt surgery, and the 36-year-old has a career-worst 3.02 goals-against average over 21 games. Fletcher told him Monday of their preference to hold him out until training camp.
“His pain threshold is tremendous,” Fletcher said. “He’s a competitive guy and I know he’s really disappointed because the team has taken a really strong step the last couple months. He’s been through some of the lean times, and I know he wants to be a part of it but our goal for Nik is to get him healthy.”
Harding was superb early in the season, but the 2013 Masterton Trophy winner—for sportsmanship, dedication and perseverance—has not played at all in 2014 due to illness related to medication for multiple sclerosis. With not much more than a month left in the regular season and Harding not yet ready to resume skating, Fletcher said he’s probably finished until the fall, too.
The search for a replacement intensified in the last couple of days. Martin Brodeur and Jaroslav Halak also were potentially available via trade, but their price was far higher than what it took to nab Bryzgalov.
The 33-year-old Russian has a 5-8-5 record in 20 games for the Oilers this season, with an ugly 3.01 goals-against average. He’s on an expiring contract, a requirement for the Wild. This is a rental, plain and simple.
That’s largely because Kuemper has tied a Wild rookie record with 11 wins and since Jan. 7 has a 1.70 GAA with two shutouts and a .939 save percentage.
“We’ve always felt he’d be a very good No. 1 goalie down the road, and we just didn’t realize down the road would mean this January and February,” Fletcher said.
The pick sent to Edmonton was originally acquired last year from Buffalo in the trade that brought first-line right wing Jason Pominville to Minnesota.
Bryzgalov has 38 games of playoff experience over five postseasons with Anaheim, Phoenix and Philadelphia, including three stellar starts against the Wild in the Western Conference quarterfinals in 2007. He stopped 73 of 77 shots in the first three games of that series, all Ducks victories. Bryzgalov struggled in defeat in the next game, Jean-Sebastien Giguere replaced him thereafter and the Ducks went on to win the Stanley Cup.
Bryzgalov’s career record is 213-157-50, including a 42-20-6 mark for the Coyotes during the 2009-10 season, his best in the NHL. He had a 2.29 goals-against average and a .920 save percentage.
Then came his ill-fated time in Philadelphia. The Flyers signed him to a $51 million, nine-year contract in 2011 and used a salary-cap compliance buyout to release him last June, just two seasons into the megadeal. General manager Paul Holmgren said then the contract was “a costly mistake.” Bryzgalov didn’t sign with the Oilers until last November.
After signing goalie Ben Scrivens to a two-year contract extension last week, the Oilers took their first step away from Bryzgalov. Then they acquired goalie Viktor Fasth from Anaheim on Tuesday for a fifth-round draft pick this summer and a third-round selection in 2015.
Dave Campbell on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/DaveCampbellAP