Myers: Kuemper not giving Wild much reason to look elsewhere for help
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Less than 48 hours from the NHL trade deadline, to the untrained eye the Minnesota Wild seemingly have a mess in goal.
After setting the league on fire in October and November, Josh Harding hasn't played since December, and may not play again this season as he deals with multiple sclerosis. Niklas Backstrom, who started the season as the Wild's top goalie (after signing a contract extension over the summer) struggled early and has never reclaimed the top spot.
In their stead, Darcy Kuemper has been called up from Iowa and on Monday started his 15th consecutive game, improving to 11-3-2 in a 3-2 win over the Calgary Flames -- the Wild's season-best fifth in a row.
For months we heard speculation that Ryan Miller, the long-time Buffalo Sabres star, was there for the taking and available to anyone who wanted to pay (read: overpay) for his services. On Friday, the St. Louis Blues became that team, pushing all of their chips to the middle of the table in a season where they are clearly hell-bent on bringing the Stanley Cup to Missouri for the first time ever.
The next "likely suspect" out there is New Jersey Devils legend Martin Brodeur. The NHL's all-time leader in shutouts, now well into his 40s, is expendable on a team that has Cory Schneider in the top spot, and is unlikely to sniff a playoff race this season.
Still, a name like Brodeur, even in the "B. Favre, circa 2009-10" era of his career, would command a high price, and what Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher needs to consider before Wednesday afternoon is if that price, for a rental is worth it.
Watching Kuemper grow into the role of an everyday NHL goalie, and watching the Wild excel with his confidence and stability between the pipes, the case can be made for standing pat, and riding the tall kid from Saskatchewan as far into May (and dare we say, June) as he can muster.
For Wild players like captain Mikko Koivu -- back in the lineup on Monday after missing nearly two months with a broken foot -- what Kuemper is doing is not a surprise.
"I thought first when he jumped in you could see... in practice, you could see his confidence got a lot better and I think the time in Iowa really helped him," said Koivu. "I guess he played a lot of games over there. But obviously the confidence he has now, you can see that and it's just kind of the edge just playing with it is good to see. He's playing winning hockey right now, so obviously that's a huge part of the team."
After coming back from the Olympic break with a shutout win in Edmonton and a shootout win in Vancouver, Kuemper completed the Western Canada sweep on Monday, stopping 21 shots sent his way by a pesky Calgary team playing hard despite being way, way out of the playoff race. He was named one of the NHL's Three Stars of the week, and has now tied the Wild's franchise record for wins by a rookie goalie with 11. All of this comes despite the fact that this rookie actually entered the season with NHL playoff experience, having seen action in a pair of games last year versus Chicago in the opening round.
Kuemper grew up five hours from Calgary, and his parents Brent and Sharon drove there on Feb. 1 to see Darcy and the Wild fall 4-3 in overtime to the Flames. On Monday the parents were in attendance at Xcel Energy Center for the first time and saw their boy get a win for a team that seems to be in full "prepping for the playoffs" mode.
"To pull out the win tonight, real special to have them here for that," Kuemper said, admitting his team looked a bit off at times. "Just coming back after that emotional game and emotional win against Vancouver, then you come home and play a team that's a little bit lower in the standings. It's going to be a little bit sloppy to start. But we stuck with it, we found our legs, and yeah, as a goalie, it was a little tough, you go long spurts without seeing any action. I was just doing my best to stay mentally into it and felt pretty good for the most part."
The advice from more than one fan for Fletcher as he considers trade offers and the clock ticks down to Wednesday is to look at the goalie stalls inside the home team's locker room and see that the Wild's needs in the crease are already being filled.
In getting a rental like Brodeur for a few months, the Wild would be bringing in a memorable name from the past while surely giving up prospects that could serve them well down the road. By contrast, in sticking with Kuemper -- who has given them no real reason to require a different course of action -- the Wild may be acknowledging they have found their goalie of the future.