Update: Wild announced Harding will not need surgery on a fractured right foot sustained in an off-ice incident Sunday. Out indefinitely.
Update 2: Bryzgalov has accepted a pro tryout with the Wild, according to sources. He is expected to arrive Thursday. Nothing is close with Darcy Kuemper. Things can obviously change with one phone call. However, other than a couple texts, there have been no phone conversations between GM Chuck Fletcher and Kuemper's agent as of 5 p.m.
With the Wild set to start training camp Thursday, coach Mike Yeo and General Manager Chuck Fletcher voiced frustration Wednesday morning over goalie Josh Harding’s sudden ankle injury and the contract dispute the team is having with young goalie Darcy Kuemper.
“All I can tell you is my full attention is on that guy right there,” Yeo said, pointing to veteran Niklas Backstrom on the ice during Wednesday’s informal practice. “He’s the one who is here, he’s the one who put in the work.
“You make plans over the summer. I mean, my staff, we’ve been making plans on who’s practicing, what practices we’re going to have, who’s playing in the exhibition games and this was under the assumption we would have Kuemps and Hards and obviously things have changed dramatically.
“We’ve gone from talking about three goalies to sitting here talking about one (Backstrom). I put on the cool face last year pretending we weren’t frustrated about [our goaltending issues], but we’re not even Day One into camp and we’re already talking about it.”
Added veteran Jason Pominville: "Knock on wood. Hopefully nothing else happens. Hopefully we don't get that 'here we go' feeling again."
Yeo and Fletcher planned to meet with Harding on Wednesday to try to figure out how the off-ice injury occurred (more on that below). Fletcher also hopes to talk with Kuemper’s agent, Jeff Helperl, and has already reached out to Ilya Bryzgalov’s agent about a potential tryout. There are also other options like Tomas Vokoun and Martin Brodeur.
As of now, Fletcher said he doesn’t know how long Harding will be out. But it is very clear this is a long-term injury.
“I’m frustrated and I’m disappointed,” Yeo said. “I’m disappointed for our guys that we’re here before Day One of camp, and we’ve got a lot of guys that put in a lot of work and this is what we’re sitting around talking about. I’d rather us talk about the excitement around our team and the work that these guys put in.
“I think Backy deserves our full attention right now. Things could change obviously as early as today, but right now he’s the guy who’s here, he’s the guy who’s putting in the work. He’s the guy who put in the work over the summer, but again, things could change, but he’s looked good and he’s the guy who is here.”
Things could change because the Wild is working toward trying to re-sign Kuemper, an unsigned 24-year-old restricted free agent who is fighting for a one-way contract.
TSN’s Bob McKenzie reported earlier this week that Kuemper wants a one-year worth $850,000. Asked if that’s true, Fletcher said Wednesday, “I don’t know. There hasn’t been a lot of communication. I made the last offer and he turned it down. He’s indicated he wants a one-way deal, but I don’t recall if he ever presented anything formally.”
Asked if Harding’s injury puts more pressure on signing Kuemper immediately, Fletcher said, “The situation itself doesn’t change he dynamic. You want to get it done because he’s a good, young goalie, he’s somebody we think has potential to be a good player, but anytime you get into a situation where you’re missing camp, it’s just not healthy. The goal is always to get a contract done. Whether Josh is healthy or not healthy doesn’t really have any impact. You always want to get it done, but you’ve got to do what’s right. We’ll just keep working through it and hopefully get it done.
“The longer it goes the more concern you get just because anytime players miss camp, they tend to have to catch up, particularly in the case of a goaltender, you really need to get back in the flow of things, get your timing. That’s my concern right now. The longer it goes, the more difficult it is for any goaltender to be on top of his game.”
Yeo also addressed the Kuemper situation for the first time, saying, “I’m very frustrated about that to be honest with you. We’re doing what we can here. I understand that there’s both sides to this, but I’m looking at it from our team standpoint, and there’s a very good opportunity there for someone like Kuemps to come in and really prove that he can be a fulltime NHL goalie.
“This is an unbelievable opportunity for him. Not only am I looking at it from a competitive standpoint for our team, I’m looking at the development of this player. I’ve been around long enough to know that if players miss time in training camp, if they miss training camp, then they’re playing catchup the whole season. I think even more so for a young player, I think even more so for a goaltender. It’s going to be a difficult thing.
“I know Chuck and his staff, they’re doing what they can here. But at the same time, you have to remember we’re making decisions not based on just one guy. There’s a trickledown effect that people have to be where they need to be [in a salary structure]. Otherwise you end up losing good players. We have a bunch of good players that we want to keep. Chuck is doing everything he can. I understand there’s a business side of it, but just from my standpoint, I’m frustrated and a little bit disappointed for the guys we have here right now that we’re going through this.”
Yeo also wanted Kuemper to know that he couldn’t care less if he’s on a one-way contract or a two-way contract, whether he requires waivers to get to the minors (he doesn’t) or not. If he’s one of the two best goalies on the team at the end of camp, in Yeo’s mind, he’s on the team regardless of contract.
“I’m not in the negotiations. I don’t know what the numbers are that we’re talking about, but I know one thing that Chuck always gives me and my staff the freedom to take the best players,” Yeo said. “If Kuemper is a good player, he’s going to be here regardless of what his contract situation is. The contract doesn’t mean anything to me.”
As for Harding, Yeo and Fletcher said they plan to meet today.
Details are murky right now, but there was apparently some kind of incident or altercation with a teammate.
“I still don’t know all the details and most likely whatever the details are, I’m not sure I’ll discuss them publicly,” Fletcher said. “Whatever happened we have to figure out. Clearly, it’s bad for Josh, it’s bad for our team. We just have to figure out what happened. But I’m not sure I want to get into a whole public expose of what happened. We’ve got to speak to the players and figure out what happened.”
Harding is in the final year of a contract worth $2.1 million. The Wild once suspended forward James Sheppard for an off-ice ATV accident days before camp that resulted in season-ruining knee surgery. Asked if the Wild conceivably could do the same thing with Harding, Fletcher said, “I don’t want to get into hypotheticals. I just want to hear what happened and figure it out. The bottom line is Josh was arguably our No. 1 goalie going into camp with how he played last year and he was feeling healthy. The bottom line is right now he’s not available to us and that diminishes our depth at that position and it hurts our team. That’s the bottom line right now. However it happened, it’s important to get the answers, but at the end of the day, it’s not going to change the situation. We’ve got to certainly figure out what happened, but now we have to figure out the best way to proceed going forward. That has to be the priority. Our division got better and we have a lot of work ahead of us and this is not the ideal way to start your season.”
Backstrom and John Curry were the Wild goalies in its final informal skate today. Players report for fitness testing and physicals Thursday with the first on-ice session Friday.
Defenseman Ryan Suter is back with the team but didn’t skate today.
Early in camp, players will be split amongst three groups so they can get more reps and conditioning in practice, as opposed to afterward. In the first three days of camp, each group will take part in two scrimmages.
Saturday’s practices from 8:30 a.m.-1 are open to the public and free. The scrimmage starts at 9:25 a.m. The first exhibition game is next Monday in Winnipeg. Regulars are expected to play four or five exhibition games of the six. Day 5 of camp starts the special teams work.