As the deadline to sign and qualify restricted free agents draws near, there have been a number of deals and no deals. Besides Chad Rau, Chay Genoway re-signed on a two-way deal and Cody Almond decided on stability by signing a three-year contract with Servette in Switzerland. (insert your own Swiss chocolate and Almond joke here). A few remain unsigned like Justin Falk and Guillaume Latendresse although both have had discussions with the Wild brass.
The biggest name, however, is goaltender Josh Harding and the potential unrestricted free agent erased all fears of leaving by signing a three year, $5.7 million contract ($1.9 million cap hit) on Tuesday. It's a remarkable achievement for Harding, who missed the entire 2010-2011 season after tearing his ACL and MCL in a preseason game, and has been recently signed to a series of one-year deals. At the same time re-signing the 28 year-old goalie is a big investment on Minnesota's end and one that is more risky than meets the eye.
Now don't get me wrong, I am happy to have Josh Harding back. A mainstay in the organization since being drafted 38th overall in 2002, Harding is every bit the professional one would want to represent their franchise. Even when he was out with the career-threatening knee injury, Josh came in, worked his butt off and remained in Minnesota. In fact after the last calendar year where Brent Burns, Martin Havlat, Marek Zidlicky, Greg Zanon and Nick Schultz were all traded due to varying degrees of wanting out it's good to see guys like Harding and Clayton Stoner want to play for the Wild and give up free agency. It's hard to go wrong seeing quotes like "I love being here, I love the city, I love the fans," and "It was really important for me to stay (in Minnesota) and work towards my goal (of being a starting goaltender in the NHL)."
That's not an issue nor is the money, which pays $1.5 million next year followed by two seasons at $2.1 million. Although it's a 60% raise on the highest Harding has ever been paid ($1.2 in 2010-2011, he earned $750K last year) he is an unrestricted free agent and it's expected that he gets paid along those lines. Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher didn't overpay. Josh's $1.9 million cap hit is slotted well between Thomas Vokoun's $2 million hit signed last month to back up Marc Andre Fleury and Brian Elliot's $1.8 million with St. Louis.
He may have given up some money to remain with Minnesota instead of looking for a starting job but with there being few #1 jobs available, it's a safe gamble on Harding's end that sees both sides win. Josh gets a chair in the dance and Fletcher doesn't have to overpay in free agency.
Also in the short-term, having both Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding in goal is good for the Wild. Between the pipes is one of the few places where Minnesota has any stability and depth, which is good after a season which saw an entire team injured or traded. Between Backstrom being in the final year of a 4 year, $24 million deal (aka Doug Risebrough's last stand) and Harding the team is set with a 1-1A platoon.
Fletcher could trade Backstrom, although the Finnish goalie has a NTC, but the money and play for both isn't an issue for 2012-2013. If the time comes that Minnesota is out of it at the trade deadline then it's time to say goodbye to the 35 year-old Backstrom and let Matt Hackett or Darcy Kuemper (both of whom get a chance to start and develop in Houston for another season where one can be the starter) take on the backup role.
Long-term, however, the positives are a little more murky. While Harding is in line financially with recent goalie contracts, he's the only one who received three years. Lets face it, three years for a goaltender who has never more than 38 games in a season or stayed healthy (besides missing a year, he had season ending hip surgery and a pair of injuries last season) is a long contract. It's been proven that Josh is replaceable with Jose Theodore and Hackett at times putting up better numbers and he finished behind Backstrom in every major goaltending category.
Worst-case scenario, it means that Minnesota has a $1.9 million backup goalie for next season and beyond if Matt Hackett proves ready to take over or Harding can't shake the injury bug. While it's not the end of the world - the 25th-highest goalie cap hit is still a tradeable figure unlike Backstrom - if he doesn't work out it still leaves an inexperienced starter and less money to bring in a veteran goaltender.
Signing players to contracts which hinge on the player overachieving seems to be a Fletcher specialty. Sometimes it works out like Kyle Brodziak's original deal and other times it's a slight disappointment like Latendresse's two-year, $5 million contract (then there is Matt Cullen's three-year, $10.5 million deal for a player who has never hit 50 points but lets forget that albatross and enjoy the Moorhead native for what he is).
For Harding, the deal is a bargain if he can prove that he is an NHL starter. He hasn't been able to break through that ceiling and at 28 years-old the window is beginning to close. Goalies take longer to develop and yes, players like Tim Thomas (NHL starter at 31) and Backstrom (came to North America at 28) have come along later but they are the exception rather than the rule. We'll know one way or another by the end of the next three seasons whether or not Josh Harding is a NHL starting goalie for better or worse. Minnesota has a lot riding on it.