On the eve of the last game of the 2010-2011 season, Jose Theodore will get the nod in net, his second in a row. Niklas Backstrom is a bit dinged up; so the backup, Theodore, will effectively close the curtain on a season that has eroded away into a lost cause.
The pundits are out now, doing some quick analysis and projection heading into another looooooooooooooong offseason; soon-to-be free agents, unrestricted and restricted; possible junior and NCAA free agent additions, who gets qualified and who doesn't. There isn't any question that Minnesota's a bit hamstrung financially, so there is a really good chance that all of the UFA's are let go, and possibly some of the RFA's as well, all in the name of financial flexibility.
The salary dump will most likely involve Josh Harding.
Once upon a time Harding, coming off of a celebrated career for Regina and Brandon in the Western Hockey League, was considered the future of Minnesota's goaltending; he was supposed to be the long-term answer for the franchise between the pipes. In retrospect Harding was even left to develop in Houston of the American League, which was odd for the Doug Risebrough regime; he posted a 67-40 record in 118 games with a 2.38 goals against, and a .924 save percentage. He also made his debut at the NHL level in 05-06, going 2-1 in three games, including a shutout.
The reality is that he didn't do anything to tarnish the promise and potential of securing the #1 goaltender gig at the NHL level.
But then came a series of unfortunate events.
1. The Free Agent Signing of Niklas Backstrom. Backstrom was signed out of SM-Liiga by the Risebrough regime, on a word of suggestion by Dwayne Roloson, who had been dealt to Edmonton earlier in the Spring. Backstrom looked to be Houston-bound in the following Training Camp, with the notion that Harding would back up and ultimately contend for the #1 role with Manny Fernandez, who had been given an extension. When Backstrom was able to grab a hold of the reins, he never looked back; he got his shot because of...
2. Injuries. Harding got injured in Camp in the fall of 2006; nothing major, but just enough to where it was prudent that he was sent to Houston in order to rehab; Backstrom would ride shotgun to Fernandez because Fernandez was being paid to shoulder the load, and also that Backstrom was healthy- it didn't make sense to put an injured/not completely healthy Harding in that role. Even if his destiny was to be the guy.
That destiny never came to fruition; and it likely never will here in Minnesota.
Harding eventually got the back-up role, and played the role of good soldier in the locker room, on the bench, and in the community; it was a minor news item when he debuted his new mask every season, including a touching tribute to his sister stricken with cancer. Girls cooed over him. He did his role admirably too; most memorably replacing an injured Niklas Backstrom and securing an improbable comeback win against Chicago by shutting down John Madden in the shootout.
The beginning of the end should have been noticed when Niklas Backstrom was bestowed in what was a lost season; for the record I was in the camp that wanted Backstom traded at the deadline, and let Harding take the reins. Give him the reps in what would amount to be pressure-less games in a season that would mean nothing but development. Instead, he was doomed to the same role as the #2 guy, and his name was bandied about in trade rumors.
Sadly Harding will most assuredly see himself July 1 looking for a job, hoping to show and prove to NHL teams that his surgically reconstructed knee, which he suffered in a preseason game this last fall, is healthy enough and that he is worthy of a contract.
That knee injury lead to the late signing of Jose Theodore, the same guy who will be the starter later today.
Looking back on the season, and how up and down Niklas Backstrom played this year, you can't help but feel for a guy like Josh Harding- this could have been the prime opportunity to grab that role to be the horse, the #1 NHL goaltender. He was recently cleared to start going down into the butterfly position, another step in his rehab.
And it is a shame to think what could have been, how different things could have been without the unfortunate timing of the misfortunes of Josh Harding.