While NHL fans keep a close eye on this year’s goalie battles in New Jersey, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Tampa Bay. I am most excited for the goalie battle that is about to occur in Iowa. No that wasn’t a typo; your eyes do not deceive you… Iowa. As some of you may know, the Minnesota Wild have moved their AHL affiliate formerly known as the Houston Aeros to the Iowa Wild this off-season and I believe that Iowa is where the next big goalie battle is brewing between Darcy Kuemper and Johan Gustafsson.
This off-season, aging goaltender Niklas Backstrom signed a 3 year deal with the Minnesota Wild (AAV 3.4M), that I believe will be his last contract. Backstrom, who turns 36 this February, is expected to get 2.5M, 3.75M, and 4M respectively. You don’t see very many players at 35+ getting contracts in the NHL longer than one or two years, and even less often do you see any contract for an NHL player going up in value the older the player gets; More than likely, this contract is due to the salary cap going down this year, but it is possible that the Wild may see Backstrom retire before this contract runs out. That is going to leave a gigantic void in net for the Wild. While I have the utmost respect for Josh Harding as a person, I don’t think he is the goalie of the future for the Minnesota Wild.
What does this mean to you, the fan? Well my fantasy hungry friends, it means you might want to pay attention to the goalie duel that will be taking place in Iowa this year, because whoever comes out ahead could very well be the backstop of the future for a potentially powerful Wild team for many years to come.
TALE OF THE TAPE
Darcy Kuemper Johan Gustafsson
Canada Country Sweden
#161 overall 2009 Drafted #159 overall 2010
6’4” Height 6’2”
196 Weight 203
23 Age 21
13-14 Contract 14-15
900,000 Value 900,000
PATH TO THE PROS
Darcy Kuemper started to shine with the Red Deer Rebels of the Western Hockey League in Canada. In his three seasons with Red Deer, he steadily improved his performance each year ending in a 2010-11 season where he led his team to the best record in the regular season and went on to win the WHL Goaltender and Player of the year awards. Listed below are his stats while playing in Red Deer:
Darcy’s first few years in the Wild system has seen him bounce around from AHL to ECHL, but Kuemper still posts great numbers wherever he is sent to play. Last year Kuemper was thrust into action with the Wild when backup goalie Josh Harding had to sit out due to complications with his new MS medications. Suddenly Harding was out and Kuemper was in. Darcy took full advantage of his time in the NHL posting a 2.08 GAA and .916 SV% in 6 regular season appearances (including THIS huge save on Anaheim’s Corey Perry). Kuemper got another shot with the Wild when Backstrom was injured in warm-ups. Harding became the starter, but Kuemper had a few flashes of brilliance when he replaced Harding in two playoff games against the eventual Stanley Cup winning Chicago Blackhawks.
Johan Gustafsson has made a significant impact with the Swedish national youth teams and with Luleå Hockey Club in the Swedish Hockey League. Johan has been impressive in international play leading Sweden’s U18 team to a silver medal in 2010, and the U20 team to gold in 2011 with a huge shutout in the Gold Medal game vs. Russia. In 2011-12 with Luleå HC he was nominated for SHL rookie of the year posting a 1.68 GAA and a .932 SV% in 29 games. In 2012-13 Johan added to his trophy room when he led Luleå to a European Trophy Championship in the preseason. During the regular season Johan stayed consistently amazing with a 1.70 GAA and .930 SV% in 33 games. He finished his career in Luleå by leading the team to the finals in the SHL Playoffs where they eventually lost to the offensive powerhouse of Skellefteå AIK. Despite losing to Skellefteå, Johan had great stats in the playoffs with a 2.03 GAA and a .925 SV% in 15 playoff games against the best hockey teams in Sweden. Listed below are his stats with Luleå in convenient list form.
Josh Harding is in line to become the next starter for the Wild, but I just don’t see him panning out for them. Harding has already had a major injury, tearing his ACL and MCL in a preseason game, causing him to miss the whole 2010-11 NHL season. In his 122 NHL games as Backstrom’s backup he has 42 wins and 52 losses, 7 shutouts, a 2.67 GAA, and a respectable .915 SV%. Harding also had a poor showing against the Blackhawks in the playoffs. Can you blame him for that? No. The Blackhawks had a phenomenal team last year, but Harding is on rocky ground. As much as I love an underdog, and as much as I respect Harding, I believe that at some point in the next few years the Wild may have to look past the comeback story and make a tough decision. They will need to ask who they see leading the Wild in net for many years to come. The answer to that question will be Kuemper or Gustafsson.
Right now, I have to give the edge to Kuemper. He is a bit older, and he has experience already in the Wild’s system at all levels. He will likely start the season in Iowa at #1. However, His edge is going to be heavily tested this year because I believe in terms of talent… Johan has Kuemper beat. I also can’t help but see that Johan has performed amazingly well in playoffs and pressure situations. Leading teams to Silver and Gold finishes in juniors, winning the European Trophy, and taking Luleå to the SHL Finals last year. Compared to that, Kuemper’s playoff experience last year was forgettable.
With all this in mind… Wild fans and fantasy hockey fans in deep leagues should keep a close eye on Iowa this year, because their future in net will be on display.
Lead Prospect Analyst