With the NHL draft just a few days away, trade talks are likely to heat up. For the Wild, most likely it means the departure of Josh Harding, a restricted free agent whose future as a No. 1 goalie in Minnesota was, at best, delayed four years while Niklas Backstrom's contract is in effect. With netminders always being a valued commodity, Harding is Minnesota's biggest trade chip, but on his own, isn't likely to fetch a big name player. His name could be included in some package but it would take more than Harding and one other player to land a top talent. (Unless that other player is Mikko Koivu or Brent Burns, but that's highly unlikely.)
In limited action, Harding has acquitted himself well and has earned consideration for a No. 1 job somewhere in the NHL. So who needs a goaltender? I've discussed this with some Wild fans and now I'll go a little more in-depth here. I'll even go so far as to list each team in the NHL and their plans in goal as much as I can.
Anaheim: No dice here, not with Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Jonas Hiller in the mix.
Atlanta: Possible destination, though not too likely. Kari Lehtonen is (was?) the goalie they want to build around, but there have been plenty of rumors swirling of Don Waddell wanting to trade Lehtonen. Maybe Thrashers management is growing impatient with Lehtonen's development. Ondrej Pavelec is another young prospect waiting in the wings, but neither he nor Lehtonen have grasped the reins yet.
Boston: A very slight darkhorse. Tim Thomas was an All-Star, won the Vezina, and has a four-year contract. He's also 35. Tuukka Rask will likely emerge as the backup, so while the Bruins will need a goalie at the end of Thomas' contract, right now Rask is the heir-apparent, so Harding won't wear black-and-gold.
Buffalo: Ryan Miller suffered a dreaded high ankle sprain last year but is still just 28, has a long contract, and Patrick Lalime is backing him up. No openings here.
Carolina: Cam Ward won't be supplanted, and Michael Leighton's the backup.
Calgary: Few goalies play as much as Miikka Kiprusoff. I bet even the front office doesn't know who the backup's name is.
Chicago: The Blackhawks gave Cristobal Huet a nice, fat contract last offseason. Then he proceeded to split time with Nikolai Khabibulin, who is now a free agent. I doubt the Bulin Wall returns, and Chicago probably rolls with Huet as No. 1 and Corey Crawford the backup.
Colorado: Our first real No. 1 opening. There ain't no one in the mix here. Peter Budaj is a restricted free agent, Andrew Raycroft is unrestricted, and I'll admit to having no idea if the Avalanche have a goalie in the minors who might be ready. Neither of the two NHLers did much last year to improve his long-term chances of being a starting goalie.
But will either the Wild or the Avs trade within the division? Rumors talk of Harding for Wojtek Wolski and a draft pick. If I'm Chuck Fletcher, I say, "Yes please, I'll take two." If I'm Colorado, the move doesn't make as much sense except from a salary dump point of view (Wolski's cap hit is $2.8 million and he's an RFA after next season.) Wolski's a nice, up-and-coming forward while Harding is still an unknown. If Harding becomes the next Patrick Roy, then advantage Colorado. Or maybe Harding becomes the next Andrew Raycroft.
Columbus: Harding isn't too likely to move Calder Trophy winner Steve Mason out of the pipes in Ohio. Some people (*cough* Nick *cough*) think Mason will become the next Jim Carey. Columbus has to hope Mason's career won't be filled with injuries like the recently-traded Pascal Leclaire.
Dallas: Marty Turco is the starting goalie. For now. He's 34 in August, on the last year of his contract, and has a less-than-stellar playoff record that has led to questions of whether he can get it done. Backup Tobias Stephen is a free agent and another youngster, Matt Climie, is a RFA. It might not be this year, but maybe Harding has a future in Big D. Wouldn't that kill Wild fans?
Ideally, Fletcher would love to get someone like Fabian Brunnstrom, James Neal or Loui Eriksson for Harding, but I don't see the Stars moving any of those guys. Still, Dallas is a possible destination.
Detroit: Possible but unlikely. Not only is Chris Osgood still there, but Jimmy Howard awaits, and the Wings will probably at least give Howard a look and see if he can cut it first. If Howard can't, then maybe Harding is an option. But, by the time Detroit determines that, Harding might no longer be in play.
Edmonton: Clear-cut opening No. 2. Dwayne Roloson is a free agent, still unsigned, but even if he signs, he's 39. Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers (after consulting NHL.com, apparently he dropped the Drouin part of his name) is their only goalie under contract right now, but has even less experience than Harding. This also brings up the "trading within the division" dilemma.
The Oilers have some young talent on the team, including former Wild property Patrick O'Sullivan, Ales Hemsky, Tom Gilbert, Sam Gagner and some others, but I don't see Edmonton parting with any of their more established talent for Harding. Maybe O'Sullivan.
Florida: Tomas Vokoun has two years left on his contract, and if I'm whoever-Florida-hires-as-GM, I'd try to re-sign Craig Anderson. If Anderson isn't re-signed, then maybe the Panthers would like to get Harding in to learn under Vokoun, but the No. 1 job wouldn't be an open competition.
Los Angeles: No clear-cut starting goalie here, but the Kings already have Jonathan Quick (who fared well) and Erik Ersberg (ups and downs), so they're not likely to want to bring in another young, unproven goalie. If LA goes for a goalie, it'll probably be a veteran like Khabibulin or Martin Biron.
Montreal: Depending to whom you talk, Carey Price was one of the biggest reasons the Canadiens bombed out in the playoffs after barely hanging onto the eighth seed. Jaroslav Halak fared a little better. The point is, no openings here.
Nashville: Pekka Rinne emerged as the No. 1, and Dan Ellis is still under contract and is a capable backup.
New Jersey: Martin Brodeur (age 37) has three years left on his contract. Scott Clemmensen, who kept the Devils' season alive, is 31 with no contract. Harding would be a backup at best for a couple seasons.
New York Islanders: This will sound funny, but I can see Long Island being a semi-viable destination. Sure, Rick DiPietro is signed to such a long contract that the original paper will have deteriorated by the end of it, but he's also a walking hospital. The Islanders had to go through a number of goalies this season, and having a reliable backup/No. 1A goalie would be really helpful.
If DiPietro stays healthy, he'll be the No. 1. But that's a big if, and there could be some rotation of DiPietro and Harding. The problem is, the Islanders need to acquire assets, not trade away draft picks or young players, so while the setting might be workable, the price probably wouldn't.
New York Rangers: Henrik Lundqvist. Steven Valiquette. Good combo.
Ottawa: I've seen many Wild fans clamoring for a trade of Harding and (insert bad contract of your choice) for Dany Heatley, but sorry, there's no way that's happening. Bryan Murray acquired Pascal Leclaire at the deadline, and he'll roll with Leclaire and Brian Elliott or Alex Auld.
Philadelphia: Ladies and gentlemen, your No. 1 stop for Josh Harding, the Philadelphia Flyers. Martin Biron is gone. Antero Niittymaki probably will join him. In their place... Ray Emery? Really? Ray Emery? The Flyers are going to try to win with Ray Emery? Ye gods.
Anyway. Yes, Emery is the only goalie under contract for the Flyers right now. They're always looking for goalies, and they never work out. From an on-ice perspective, this is Harding's best bet. The problem is, the first bad goal he gives up - maybe it doesn't even have to be a bad one - then boom, people will be all over him. But there's good forwards in place, good defense, just no goalie.
I discussed this on Russo's Rants the other day, and Daniel Briere could be part of a deal for Harding. Philadelphia is in salary cap hell right now (just under $55 million for 19 players next season) and Briere is the most expendable piece. He's playing out of position at wing because of Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. He's still productive (97 points in 108 games, 31 goals two seasons ago) but ran into a plethora of health issues last season.
The contract is a nightmare, yes. He's signed through 2015 at a cap hit of $6.5 million. He's also a top-two center the Wild needs. Philadelphia needs a goalie and cap space. The Wild has a lot of cap room. The Flyers might be willing to let Briere go for less (Harding and maybe a cheap roster player for the third or fourth line) just to get him off their books.
If Fletcher thinks Briere will fit in Minnesota, and the price isn't too expensive (trade-wise), it could work. The Wild have some salaries coming off the books after 2010 which could make Briere's more acceptable.
Phoenix: Well, Ilya Bryzgalov is here and sometimes plays outstanding and sometimes not so much. But he's signed for another two seasons at over $4 million, and I think the Coyotes might be more concerned with where they're going to play next season rather than who will be on the team.
Pittsburgh: Even though some in Pittsburgh still aren't comfortable with Marc-Andre Fleury, the guy just won a Stanley Cup. (Also, those people are idiots.)
San Jose: Evgeni Nabokov is really good, and he'll also be 34 in July, entering the last year of his contract. The Sharks are usually good at finding goalies, so Harding won't fit here.
St. Louis: Chris Mason shook off a bad start to the season and was a key reason why the Blues made the playoffs. He'll keep his starting job, and Ben Bishop is around to back him up.
Tampa Bay: Another small possibility. The Lightning have Mike Smith, who suffered a concussion and ruined a good part of his season. I think Smith is capable but having insurance for him probably wouldn't be a bad idea. Tampa wants to be rid of Ryan Malone's contract, but fans in Minnesota aren't keen on picking it up. (Of course, fans don't make the call on trades.) Still, not too likely these teams match up.
Toronto: Another good fit. Rumors of Harding and Marek Zidlicky for Tomas Kaberle have circulated, and I think that's a good deal for the Wild. Brian Burke shot it down, however. Vesa Toskala is hanging around, but I'd say the Leafs goalie job is still up for grabs.
Vancouver: Roberto Luongo won't go anywhere...yet. He'll be a free agent after the 2010 season but that doesn't help for right now.
Washington: Jose Theodore makes $4.5 million but lost his starter's job in the playoffs to Simeon Varlamov. Either way, the Capitals don't have an opening.
So there you have it, one man's team by team evaluation of starting goalies and where Harding fits. I see him landing in Philadelphia, Toronto, maybe to one of Minnesota's division rivals, or an outside chance of Tampa Bay.