The current state of Minnesota Wild goaltending displays a promising and bright future, thanks in large part to their 2009 NHL Entry Draft picks making big waves this year in their respective junior leagues. Combined with solid experience and good youth at the AHL and ECHL levels, the Wild have bright stars illuminating the team’s path and a classy depth chart worthy of that recognition.
Like we will come to discover with most NHL teams, their depth chart starts and ends with some European flair. The undrafted Niklas Backstrom continues to reigns supreme in Minnesota, while the tower of power prospect from Finland, Niko Hovinen, a lanky kid considered as another hidden gem, just re-signed with Lahti in SM-Liiga.
When Hovinen was drafted, he was considered a long shot. The term “work in progress” was a stretch and it was one of those picks that banked more on a trend than a guarantee. Lanky European goalies slowly started to become all the rage starting after the NHL Lockout. Even though it seemed like a shot in the dark at the time, you can’t blame them for drafting a kid who already has such an intimidating presence.
“Good pick, Minnesota.” I said that same thing twice last summer, as the Wild plucked Matt Hackett from the ranks in the third round (77th overall) and then Darcy Kuemper 161st overall in the 6th round. As you’ll see from the questions below, which were left by fantasy managers in the School of Block forums, there are a lot of positives coming out of Minnesota. This team has good structure and coverage from top to bottom and only one small hole currently exists.
Also be sure to check out the Top-100 Fantasy Prospects Rankings updates for the month of March! I just uploaded them this morning. Kuemper moved up a few spots, as did Hackett and Khudobin.
Niklas Backstrom’s save percentage is way down from most seasons and his salary is tough to justify. Given that his huge cap hit spans multiple seasons, do you see a trade, or do the Wild stick it out?
Even though Backstrom’s statistics and fantasy value has declined this season, I don’t think it’s solely due to being any less talented or less capable of being a workhorse. There were a lot of changes in Minnesota to start the season – everything from coaching to playing style to their overall identity. And for as good as Backstrom has been in his career as an undrafted goalie, you have to expect a slight drop in value at some point. In fact, I’d say at least 75% of his games this year were quality starts and he easily stole at least five games.
Expect Minnesota to look at the season as nothing more than a small step back, but nothing worth panicking over. He will be fine. In a position where complacency kills, the fact his stats were not as good as last year will force him to work extra hard over the summer to improve his speed and conditioning and stay sharp.
If there’s one thing he’ll want to work on this summer, it’s being a bit more active with his hands and feet. I notice that his traditional positional style has caused him to miss a lot of shots in tight or deflections. It’s not that his positional style is a bad thing, but he could stand to be a little more balanced with more active sequences. On a team like the Wild, that could mean the difference between four or five wins and losses. That’s easily a playoff spot.
Thanks to Josh Harding’s constant injury issues, this team’s only real gap in the depth chart is a reliable backup. Therefore they will have no choice but to ride Backstrom to the promise land once again. To be honest, it’s not a bad way to ride. If the team improves a little defensively over the summer, they could be just as potent as any other team.
There’s always the notion that Backstrom isn’t valuable enough in the eyes of the other 29 NHL managers to warrant a valid trade, but on the ice, he’s just as competitive as any other goalie in the Western Conference. It’s a tough market for goalies, so I’m sure Backstrom will be staying put in Minnesota for at least the next two seasons.
Is Josh Harding the answer, or do you see Anton Khudobin stepping in quickly and taking over?
This is probably the most pertinent question regarding the short-term goaltending future of the Wild. I’ve written a lot on Harding before, especially regarding his injuries and how it severely impacts his fantasy value, even though he’s an extremely talented goaltender. With Khudobin performing extremely well in his two games with the Wild this year, I do think that he has the inside track on being Backstrom’s backup next season.
As much as it hurts to say this, I think Harding may have severely damaged his body and his future with the team. His career is by no means over (see Antero Niittymaki), but for the time being, fantasy managers should know there’s no guarantee he’ll miraculously be healthy forever. It’s probably best for the Wild to move on and find him another team.
But then again, Harding is a restricted free agent. That means a new deal has to be worth more than what he made this season, so it’s up to the team to decide if they want to give him more money. It’s a tough situation for both sides, but I’m sure another team will have an interest in his services at some point in time. There’s always the chance the Flyers do what they did with Ray Emery and Michael Leighton. I didn’t think Peter Budaj was going to be re-signed last summer as a restricted free agent, but they ended up giving him more money to do a lot less.
The tragic side of Harding’s story is that he played through pain on purpose because he knew he had to get in enough minutes to where scouts would see his potential. But at what cost did this come at? Too high of one. His play will probably never be the same. You’ll just have to wait and see if there’s any stiffness to his game. Too many questions, not enough answers. That’s unfortunately just the way she goes for some goalies.
Is Khudobin ready for the NHL? What is his ETA?
Absolutely. Khudobin is a great prospect that had an up-and-down season in the AHL to say the least. But his motivated play with the Wild in two games was enough to garner plenty of momentum heading into next season. I’m sure he’ll be given a chance to fight for the backup job in training camp. His age (23) and composure and confidence are all there and he’s extremely energetic.
I look at Khudobin’s game and I wonder if there’s anything to not like. A native of Kazakhstan, Anton plays a style similar to Evgeni Nabokov. It’s a great balance of active hands and feet and good positioning. He challenges well and has quickness and decent size. Of course there’s a long way to go before he is entrenched in the NHL, but it will come with hard work and time.
Since Khudobin is a restricted free agent that only made $600,000 this season, his new contract could be much lower than Harding’s. His would have to be more than $1.1 million. So as of today, my ETA for Khudobin is next season.
Harding hasn't stood out this season and likely doesn't warrant an offer sheet, but that doesn't mean a team won't want to try and trade for him. Do you see something like this happening in the off season?
I don’t think anyone will jump out and give him an offer sheet, nor do I expect the Wild to tend him offers right away. Again, he’d have to sign for more money if he plays in Minnesota and I don’t expect them to do give him more than $1.1 million, unless they are absolutely sure he is 100% healthy heading into the summer. We’ll have to keep an eye on the progress of his recovery and go from there.
Who is the real future of the organization - Khudobin or Matt Hackett?
Matt Hackett has a much brighter future with more upside to his game, but that doesn’t mean Khudobin doesn’t have the ability to become Minnesota’s future as well. Khudobin has the inside track because he’s a little older and already playing some NHL minutes, but I would say Hackett has much more potential.
A big reason for this is because Hackett has more coaching structure, is playing many more games than Khudobin and employs a much more refined butterfly style. As a result, there’s a significant difference between the two, including but not limited to their on-ice execution and overall development.
I would say Khudobin’s future is bright, but the true future of the organization is Hackett. There’s a gap of at least 2-3 years of development between the two of them, so in terms of long-term keeper fantasy value, Hackett is the goalie to own, while Khudobin is a pleasant surprise and a good blue chip to improve depth on a fantasy team’s farm system.
What kind of athleticism does Hovinen possess? I have a hard time picturing the mechanics of him moving.
This is a great question, as I understand how it can be hard to picture his mechanics at that size. To be honest, I’ve only seen short videos of him myself, so all I can say is that he has decent athleticism for his size. There’s not a lot of published information on Hovinen, but I’ll be sure to document what I find in the forums as time goes on.
Similar to other tall and raw European goalies, he’s way too hunched over and needs to work on upper body control and positioning. It can be tough for lanky goalies to control their arms and shoulders because their weight just isn’t distributed the same as smaller, more compact goalies.
He definitely looks awkward in the net, but as time goes on, he’ll learn to move more efficiently in the crease. His hands are out in front of him, which also makes him appear as if he’s always a bit unbalanced. He also plays up on his toes in an active stance, which also perpetuates that appearance of being a little unstable.
If you were to dance around the idea of acquiring Hovinen in your keeper league, just be prepared to wait at least another 3-4 years before he rounds into a form that’s capable of being effective in the AHL or NHL.
How does the Wild's goaltending depth compare to other NHL teams?
I would say it’s one of the better depth charts in the league, but only due to the two picks in their most recent draft. I like that they don’t have anyone over the age of 31 in the system and have at least one Finnish prospect developing in his native country. Hackett is easily their prized North American prospect and Darcy Kuemper is no slouch at all. Of the three teams that have been completed so far, they are easily at the top of the list.
I hope you enjoyed this week’s The Current State! Be sure to visit School of Block to vote on the next team!