Professional sports isn’t always known for having a lot of nice guys. For athletes who are placed on such a high pedestal by our society, they could almost be forgiven for thinking a little highly of themselves. There are numerous examples where a great athlete turns out to be a bit of a jerk. Some of it may be by their arrogance, or their infallibility, by the actions of their personal life away from the game, or how they sometimes have been known to treat the fans. Their fame, their tremendous salaries come at the price of privacy as they become sort of local celebrities. I will never be confused for a celebrity, while being a teacher does mean I’ll get and polite hello and wave from students when I’m out and about I am more or less anonymous outside of the community I currently live in. I can empathize with these athletes who try to go to dinner only to be swarmed by paparazzi or autograph seekers. So are these people jerks because they turn down a few of these autograph hounds or tell someone they don’t want their picture taken right now? Perhaps not. Hockey players are said to be a different breed, and before I say too much else I have only a limited amount of experience in meeting and greeting NHL’ers. I haven’t met one yet that was not courteous or down to earth, but I am not naive to believe that all of them are this way. Occasionally, when I go to certain arenas I sometimes see current and former NHL’ers and I do my best to be discrete and give just a nod of acknowledgement but subtle enough not to draw undue attention towards them. Do they care that I do that? I have no idea. Yet I think if I was them I’d rather have that then be stopped for an autograph every time someone walks by. By all accounts, Josh Harding is one of the NHL’s ‘nice guys’. A goaltender who has a sense of humor, who is unselfish and patient and a player you can say was ‘home grown’ as the Wild drafted in the 2nd round (38th Overall) back in 2002. He paid his dues by toiling in the minors in Houston for the better part of 3 seasons, then eventually becoming the backup to Niklas Backstrom. Over that time, Harding has struggled to stay healthy and has provided average to slightly above average performance between the pipes. This season, as Backstrom struggled with his own injury issues, Harding couldn’t stay healthy long enough to take the reins and prove to everyone he was deserving of a chance to be a #1 goaltender if not with the Wild but someplace else.
Yesterday, Harding made comments to the Minneapolis Star Tribune saying how he really wants to re-sign with the Wild, but only if its a multi-year deal. The comments to me came off as a bit desperate. “I’d love to be back here. It’s no secret I like Minnesota and I like being here. My goal since I was drafted (10 years ago) was to be a No. 1 goalie in Minnesota. I want to be a No. 1 goalie and if there’s a place and we can work something out, I’d love to stay.” Does that sound like a guy who’s waiting by the phone for a phone call and its staying silent? I think so. So the Wild apparently liked this demonstration of ‘loyalty’ and signed Harding to a 3-year deal worth $5.7 million giving the 28-year old goalie about $1.9 million per season. Huh? What were the Wild thinking?
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What message did the Wild just send to Matt Hackett by signing Harding to a multi-year deal?
Apparently they love cheese when they see it. Harding’s glowing comments about the organization (you can read them here) were well timed to prompt the club into making a generous offer for a fragile goaltender whose best season (last year) statistically speaking was a 13-12-4 record, a fairly average 2.62GAA and a .917% save percentage. While you can forgive him for those kinds of numbers when you consider he plays for the league’s most offensively anemic team, but still he’s a far cry from being a prime candidate to take over as the #1 goalie fo the Wild. There is little doubt that Harding’s deal makes Backstrom, who is 34 and currently making $6 million next season (in the last year of his 4-year deal) may see the writing on the wall that his days with the team may be numbered. Backstrom too has battled injury issues recently and hasn’t been nearly as air tight between the pipes as he was when Jacques Lemaire was coach where he originally signed that contract that put him amongst the elite goaltenders in the NHL in terms of salary. $1.9 million is not a ridiculous amount of money to spend for Harding, who hasn’t complained about having a lack of opportunities to win the #1 spot over the years, but when you consider a proven starting goaltender like Tomas Vokoun made just $1.5 million this season, and the year before that when Harding went down with a knee injury where he tore his MCL and ACL in a pre-season game that we spent a scant $1 million by bringing in another proven starter in Jose Theodore. The goalie market may be a bit thinner but there are usually a few proven goaltenders still waiting for a deal mid-summer that could likely have been cheaper than Harding. Did Harding really deserve over a 100% raise?
It depends on who you ask. If you follow Twitter (you can follow me at @StateofHckyNews by the way) the Hockey News‘ Brian Costello seemed to think the Wild got Harding for a bargain price saying they thought the Regina-native would fetch as much as $3 million per season. If this is true and teams apparently were going to be swamping Harding’s phone with calls stating their interest then why didn’t he take them up on their offer? Harding would say it was because he didn’t want to go be a backup somewhere else even if it meant more money. Ok, but hasn’t he looked behind him? Its not as though the Wild’s cupboard of future goaltenders is bare. The Wild have Matt Hackett, who looked pretty competent in his few stints with the team last year 3-6-0 record, 2.38GAA, .921% save percentage are the kind of numbers that are more or less equal to Harding’s and he’s already under contract. The London, Ontario-native has been very solid in two seasons with the team’s AHL affiliate in Houston and for the most part has little to prove at that level anymore. I am sure Hackett has to feel a little annoyed to hear that Harding (the guy directly above him on the depth chart) is going to be around another 3 years barring a trade. I think Hackett has proven himself worthy of an extended NHL shot and if the Wild do make a trade of either Backstrom (whose contract limits where he can be dealt) or Harding maybe he’ll get that chance. Yet in the here and now it looks like he will start another season in Houston. However, Hackett is the only goaltender waiting for their opportunity. The Wild’s crease is a bit crowded as it has promising youngsters Darcy Kuemper (2010 CHL goaltender of the year) and Johan Gustafsson (gold medal winner at this year’s U-20 World Junior Championships) chomping at the bit to prove themselves. Harding’s deal also means that one of them will likely be sent to hone his game with the Orlando Solar Bears, the Wild’s new ECHL affiliate. If you listen to Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher it seems as though he wants to see Hackett and Kuemper compete for the right to be the #1 in Houston or be sent to the ECHL when he told the Star Tribune‘s Michael Russo, “Exactly. Let them play it out. The less guessing you do in this business, usually the better off you are. Just let the players make the decisions for you with their play. I know we have quality goaltending in our organization and have a strong 1-2 punch in the NHL next year.” Maybe its just me but if I’m Matt Hackett, while I’d welcome the challenge it certainly means the last two years didn’t gain him that much respect by the club’s front office despite carrying the Aeros to the Calder Cup Finals in 2011 in his rookie season.
As I sort of read some of the comments left over at the Star Tribune and Twitter, from fans and players alike one comment jumped out at me. It was from injured winger Guillaume Latendresse who is currently set to be a restricted free agent. He tweeted the following, “Congrats to my friend and one of the best in his business. Well worth it and what a good signing for our team !! Congrats to Josh Harding!” Whoa, wait a sec? Our team? This is coming from a guy whose played in just 27 games the last two seasons as he’s sat out with various ailments (groin, hernia, and a concussion) and he’s talking as though he’s going to be on the team next year? Latendresse was cleared today by team doctors and Russo predicts he’ll be offered a contract before the end of the week. So in just a few days the Wild re-signed an oft-injured forward and an oft-injured goaltender. Nice to see that we learned our painful lessons from last year where injuries derailed a promising start.
Maybe Harding’s deal is not so bad when you consider that he may just be the starting goaltender for a reasonable $1.9 million per season, but in my opinion that is a huge ‘if’ for a guy whose main flaw is his ability to stay healthy. Some players are simply injury prone and even though they show lots of promise the fact they struggle to stay in the lineup negate many of the qualities they bring to the team. Former Columbus Blue Jackets’ Pascal Leclaire is a good example of this. Lots of promise, but they guy couldn’t stay healthy and found himself washed out of the league.
The Wild also agreed to terms with Eden Prarie’s Chad Rau who showed a little spark in a few small auditions with the club as injuries ravaged the team. Rau has been a dedicated and reasonable farm hand, and no doubt this contract was earned by his hard work down in Houston rather than the two goals he scored with the Wild. It seems as though the Wild are getting their ducks lined in a row so it can be focused for a major push on July 1st, the opening of NHL Free Agency. Yet will the Wild land the deals they will be seeking or will we have to be satisfied signing a few ‘nice guys’ instead of the ‘good guys’ we want?