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Fantasy goalie dilemma: Health key for Wild trio

by Pete Jensen /

In fantasy football, you're able to draft a team defense. If only fantasy hockey owners had the luxury of consolidating the Minnesota Wild goaltenders.

Darcy Kuemper, Josh Harding and Niklas Backstrom have proven they are capable of starting at the NHL level -- when healthy. The Wild cycled through five goalies last season because of injuries, but they had the League's seventh-best team goals-allowed average (2.42). That's a testament to organizational depth.

In reality, few teams are better equipped for the rigors of the upcoming season than Minnesota, but that doesn't necessarily help fantasy owners looking for a clear-cut No. 1. Unless you have rare roster flexibility and a willingness to put all your eggs in one basket by scooping up all three Wild goalies, it's important to be strategic when considering one or two of them in your draft.

There are four recommended routes when it comes to Wild goalies this fall:

1. Invest in either Kuemper or Harding individually after the 12th round.

2. Target the Kuemper-Harding tandem in mid to late rounds.

3. Take Niklas Backstrom in the final round of your draft as a bench goalie with hidden value.

4. Avoid the situation altogether because of the risk involved.

Last season, the Wild acquired Ilya Bryzgalov from the Edmonton Oilers prior to the NHL Trade Deadline, making a cloudy goalie situation even more unpredictable. The veteran played 21 games (12 regular season, nine postseason), filling in nicely when Kuemper missed time with an injury and helping the Wild into the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

But the unrestricted free agent remains unsigned, indicating that Minnesota has elected to move forward with Kuemper, Harding and Backstrom. When you take age into account, Backstrom (36) appears to be the odd man out if Kuemper (24) and Harding (30) stay healthy.

Neither Kuemper nor Harding is worth an investment in the first 12 rounds due to the uncertainty of the big-picture situation. Each goalie carries his share of upside but comes with great risk and a slim chance of starting 50-plus games.

If you are planning to choose one of the three Wild goalies, Kuemper should be considered the safest bet to emerge as a fantasy difference-maker.

Among the four rookie goalies who started at least four games last postseason (John Gibson, Frederik Andersen, Dustin Tokarski), Kuemper was tied for the most wins (three) and had the best even-strength save percentage (.927) and best goals-against average (2.03). He's a restricted free agent, but he warrants a significant number of starts if he signs, even if Harding stays healthy.

Harding was as impressive as any goalie for the first three months of 2013-14, but fantasy owners had to proceed without him because of complications related to multiple sclerosis. He was a top-five fantasy goalie at the turn of the calendar year, but his condition prevented him from seeing any action over the final three-plus months of the regular season and the two-round postseason.

Josh Harding
2013-14 STATS
RECORD: 18-7-3
GAA: 1.65 | SVP: 0.933
He proved last season that he has the highest upside of these three goalies, but if he misses time again, which is possible given his unfortunate health concern, owners can expect Kuemper to assume the bulk of the duties. Harding, who is skating this offseason, led the NHL in goals-against average (1.65) and save percentage (.933) last season (minimum 22 games), but it's uncertain whether his condition could sideline him again.

That said, once Kuemper goes off the board, there's as much reason for another owner to take a chance with Harding, who could prove to be valuable on his own or as potential in-season trade bait to the owner who selected Kuemper.

Alternatively, the prospect of drafting Kuemper and Harding as a tandem once the 13th or 14th round rolls around also is promising. There's a great chance the duo could slide down the draft board and provide your team with high-quality goaltending and much more reassurance than selecting one individually. If you take a top-10 goalie early in your draft, it's worth targeting Harding and Kuemper as a duo to round out the position.

Niklas Backstrom
2013-14 STATS
RECORD: 5-11-2
GAA: 3.02 | SVP: 0.899
Only if Harding and Kuemper are each on the injury list will Backstrom, who has two years left on his one-way contract, have a legitimate chance to reclaim a job he held for years. He appeared in 50-plus games in four straight seasons (2007-08 to 2010-11) and won 70 games over a two-year span during the height of his career. But despite tying for the League lead with 24 wins in 42 games during the shortened season of 2012-13, Backstrom has failed to post a goals-against average better than 2.43 or a save percentage of at least .920 in any of the past five seasons, feats he accomplished in each of his first three NHL seasons.

Given Harding's prominence last season, Kuemper's performance in his absence, and Backstrom's injury issues, the two younger options appear poised to form a strong 1-2 punch -- if healthy.

There's a ton of uncertainty surrounding this dilemma, and many fantasy owners will steer clear of such a dicey situation in the first place. It's appropriate to rank the projected goalie tandems of the St. Louis Blues (Brian Elliott, Jake Allen) and Anaheim Ducks (John Gibson, Frederik Andersen) ahead of the Wild's (Kuemper, Harding), but take into account the potential value of Minnesota's group, individually and as a tandem, in later rounds.

One thing is for certain: The Wild goalie situation will be defined by the collective health of its options. The rest is up to chance, making this arguably the League's most unpredictable and compelling goalie competition heading into training camp.


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