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Updated: June 14th, 2014 1:26pm
Zulgad: Wild's biggest offseason issue is between the pipes

Zulgad: Wild's biggest offseason issue is between the pipes

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

With NHL free agency approaching on July 1, speculation will be headed into overdrive when it comes to the Wild's expected courtship of Thomas Vanek.

The Wild and Vanek have been tied together for months, dating to when the former Gophers star began the season as a member of the Buffalo Sabres. The winger has since been traded to the Islanders then Montreal but the assumption all along has been that his final destination will be in Minnesota.

There is little doubt the 30-year-old Vanek could add a scoring presence that the Wild has been lacking, but general manager Chuck Fletcher likely realizes that the forward position is not the most pressing issue on his offseason notepad.

Neither is that big, physical defenseman who would be a nice addition on the blue line and already might be on the current depth chart.

Nope.

Fletcher's biggest concern has to be in goal.

The Los Angeles Kings' five-game victory over the New York Rangers in the Stanley Cup Finals served as the latest reminder that goaltending is the biggest key to building a championship team.

The Rangers had a chance to cut the Kings lead in the series to 2-1 and got the better of Los Angeles for much of Game 3, outshooting L.A. 32-15. That didn't matter to Jonathan Quick. The Kings goalie made save after save in a 3-0 victory that gave his team a commanding 3-0 lead in the series.

The Kings had every opportunity to complete the sweep in Game 4, but this time Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist proved nearly unbeatable in a 2-1 win. Lundqvist stopped 40 shots, including 15 in the third period. The Rangers had one shot on Quick in the same 20-minute span.

Quick and Lundqvist won those two games for their teams.

This is not to say that there is a Quick or Lundqvist on the free-agent or trade market for Fletcher to obtain. But this is a fact: The Wild has a goaltending situation that needs to be sorted out, and fixed, if they want to make the jump from being a playoff team to a Cup contender.

Ask yourself this question: "Do the Wild have a goalie right now who you feel can singlehandedly win them a game if it came to it?"

The Wild's goaltending depth chart right now features Niklas Backstrom, Josh Harding, Darcy Kuemper and Ilya Bryzgalov. Bryzgalov, who was obtained at the trade deadline last winter from Edmonton, will be a free agent in July and isn't expected to return.

That leaves Backstrom, Harding and Kuemper.

The Wild explored the goalie market last offseason before re-signing Backstrom to a three-year, $10.25 million contract. The 36-year-old had gone 24-15-3 with a 2.48 goals-against average and .909 saves percentage in 42 games in 2012-13.

The risk factors in doing a multi-year deal with Backstrom included his age and the fact that he had undergone sports hernia surgery the month before he was given the new contract.

The concerns have grown. Backstrom went 5-11-2 with a 3.02 goals-against average and .899 save percentage in only 21 games this season. He was shut down in March after undergoing surgery on a core muscle injury.

Josh Harding was often spectacular when he was able to play this past season, posting a 1.66 goals-against average and .933 saves percentage in 29 games and 26 starts. The issue was that Harding did not appear in a game after Dec. 31.

This is a tough situation because, as everyone knows, Harding is battling multiple sclerosis and the fact he continues to play in the NHL speaks volumes about his character and willingness to fight.

But the Wild also knows that Harding has missed substantial portions of the past two seasons and that can't be dismissed by Fletcher as he makes decisions about his roster.

The final piece to this equation is Kuemper, who at one point during the playoffs had a chance to take over as the Wild's undisputed No. 1 goalie but saw that ended by a concussion. It was his second concussion of the season.

Kuemper had a 12-8-4 record with a 2.43 goals-against average and .915 save percentage in 26 regular-season games (25 starts) and then went 3-1 with a 2.03 goals against and .913 save percentage in six playoff games (five starts).

Do you completely trust Kuemper? Were back-to-back concussions a fluke or the sign of a concerning trend?

Sure, Backstrom, Harding or Kuemper could emerge in training camp and become the guy who would have the ability to win the Wild games when it counts most. But assuming that will be the case could end up burning Fletcher.

Backstrom isn't getting any younger and physically there have to be concerns. Harding has been courageous in battling a disease that is both terrible and unpredictable. The Wild knows more about the 24-year-old Kuemper but not enough to say he's a sure thing.

So what will the Wild end up doing in goal? Is the solution on the roster or with another team? Fletcher's answers to these questions in the coming weeks likely will have a huge impact on whether the Wild is a playoff team or a Cup contender next season.

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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