Of all the teams in the league currently struggling, no team is as confounding as the Minnesota Wild.
Minnesota has the makeup of a top-flight team. They have plenty of offensive stars, they have a deep lineup, and they’ve got one of the best defensemen in the league in Ryan Suter. Add to it that in a difficult division, facing outstanding competition on a near nightly basis, the Wild have somehow managed to be in the top third of the league as a possession team.
Yet, due to the worst goaltending in the entire league, the entire operation has come unraveled. To make matters worse, goaltender Darcy Kuemper was placed on the injured reserve on Thursday and is expected to miss at least a week, so now a bad situation gets worse in Minnesota. If the Wild have any chance of salvaging their season, where should they look for help between the pipes?
The easiest answer, of course, is to rely on a duo of Niklas Backstrom and John Curry. The problem with that, however, is that if Kuemper has been bad this season, Backstrom has been worse. Of goaltenders that have played more than 500 minutes, there are only five with a 5-on-5 save percentage worse than Kuemper, and the 36-year-old Finnish netminder is among them.
Backstrom has started only eight games this season, but made appearances in fifteen, which should speak volumes about just how bad Minnesota has been between the pipes. In the games he has played, Backstrom has gone 5-3-3 with 35 goals against, an .896 save percentage, and goals-against average of 2.71. As for Curry, he’s a 30-year-old netminder with seven games of NHL experience. So that’s not the answer, either.
Even if the 24-year-old Kuemper is back soon, he simply hasn’t been good enough, and the Wild are on the verge of wasting what could have been one of the best team’s in franchise history. If they want to improve quickly, they are likely going to have to look outside the organization for help, and their best bet is to get on it as soon as possible.
One interesting option for the Wild lies in division rival, and Thursday night opponent, Chicago. The Blackhawks are locked up long-term with Corey Crawford, but backup Antti Raanta is on a two-year deal and Scott Darling has been more than serviceable as a third string goaltender. On a deal that is cheap and could work as a short-term option, Raanta, or Darling, could both be interesting options for the Wild.
While the sample size for both netminders is rather small, they’ve shown what they can do with a dominant possession team, and that’s exactly what Minnesota is. Prying either away from Chicago may not be too costly, either, but trading a netminder inside the division may not be ideal for Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman.
Sticking in the Western Conference, it could also be worth the Wild’s time to inquire about the availability of Los Angeles Kings backup Martin Jones. Though, the Kings are in the thick of the playoff hunt and having a fall back plan in case of injury to starter Jonathan Quick would be wise, there may be a trade that could entice Kings GM Dean Lombardi to let Jones come to Minnesota.
The most interesting options are in the Eastern Conference, however. You could actually limit it to simply the Atlantic Division, as each of Montreal, Boston, and Toronto provide a possibility for Wild GM Chuck Fletcher.
In Montreal, Dustin Tokarski, 25, has played well in limited time and one would have to believe he would be an upgrade over the current situation in Minnesota. Tokarski is likely not going to find himself taking the starting job with Carey Price in front of him, and Habs GM Marc Bergevin may be wise to see what he could fetch from a team desparate for goaltending. With a .924 SP and 2.23 GAA, Tokarski’s certainly a better option than Backstrom, who has been nothing short of awful this season and the Wild could find themselves in worse situations than having two mid-20s goaltenders fighting for the top job.
Boston’s Niklas Svedberg provides Fletcher with yet another name to think on. Much like the situation in Montreal, Boston has an established goaltender in Tuukka Rask and as one of the best netminders in the league, it’s hard to picture a scenario in which Svedberg unseats Rask. As such, Svedberg may be ripe for the taking. Considering that Malcolm Subban, Boston’s first round pick in 2012, is currently playing in the AHL, and it makes Svedberg’s days as a Bruin seem numbered.
Svedberg has been fairly good, too. With a .918 SP and 2.46 GAA, the 25-year-old Swede could offer Minnesota similar competition to bringing in Tokarski, and it could be cheaper.
And speaking of cheap, plucking James Reimer away from Toronto may also be something worth examining for Fletcher. Reimer hasn’t been outstanding this year – far from it, really – but he has in previous seasons shown tremendous ability for the Maple Leafs and could do so again if in the right situation. It wouldn’t take a goaltender standing on his head to save the Wild’s season, rather just one who can stop the bleeding.
The final option for Fletcher, which would certainly take some maneuvering, would be working to acquire Cam Ward from the struggling Carolina Hurricanes. With the Canes in the Eastern Conference basement and the team all but certain to get a top five pick in the 2015 draft, it’s not crazy to think Ward is available.
An unrestricted free agent in 2016-17, Carolina is likely going to want to get something for Ward while they can if the idea is to move on. Minnesota has more than a few nice pieces up front and on the backend, so it’s not beyond reason to think some sort of deal could be worked out between the two teams.
The question then is whether Minnesota would even really be interested in Ward, who is about to turn 31 and more than a few years removed from his best season in the league. He has turned in 16 quality starts this season – games in which his save percentage has been above league average – but it may not be wise of the Wild to overpay for a goaltender that is entering the twilight of his career.
Whatever the Wild do choose to do, they’re going to need to make a choice fast. With the playoffs inching closer with every single game, it seems more likely that Minnesota is going to be on the outside looking in. That would be a terrible shame for a team that, outside of its goaltending, has all the makings of a Cup contender.