- Katie Strang, ESPN.com
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It’s no secret what topic will be dominating the headlines when the Minnesota Wild open training camp later this month.
Despite making a significant step this spring -- advancing to the second round of the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs and taking the Chicago Blackhawks to six games in the Western Conference semifinals -- the Wild head into the upcoming season with one big question on everyone’s mind: Who will be their starting goaltender?
Harding had a sensational start to the season but was sidelined indefinitely in January while continuing to battle multiple sclerosis. Backstrom was hampered by a groin injury. Kuemper entered as an unproven youngster, but he impressed quite a few people.
Yes, the situation remains fluid and no one can quite predict how it will play out, but there isn’t reason for panic, according to former Wild captain Wes Walz.
“That’s going to be a topic around here, especially as training camp rolls around, but I’m not nearly as concerned with the goaltending scenario as most people,” Walz told ESPN.com in a recent phone conversation.
Why is that? Walz said that, from the people he has spoken with, Harding is reportedly in an “excellent place right now.” Moreover, he believes Backstrom is in much better shape following the second surgery to repair his groin issues. And Walz was thoroughly impressed by what he noticed in Kuemper last season, saying that the 24-year-old has “tremendous potential.”
If Kuemper begins the season with the team’s AHL affiliate in Des Moines, Iowa, and Harding and Backstrom are healthy to start the season, the club should be in good shape.
“If those two start the season, I think both goaltenders will be among top 10 in the league,” said Walz, who now works as an analyst for Fox Sports North on Wild broadcasts.
Walz thinks the biggest challenge for the Wild is not defending the net, but filling it.
“It’s not a secret that every team in the NHL needs guys that can finish around the net and guys that can score. If you watch all six of our [playoff] games against Chicago, I would say that in five of six of those, they outchanced and outplayed [Chicago], but they had a very difficult time finishing, whether that be 5-on-5 or in the slot on the power play,” Walz said. “That was kind of the theme even throughout the season.”
Enter Thomas Vanek, whom the Wild inked to a three-year, $19.5 million deal as one of the top unrestricted free agents this summer.
Walz thinks that the two-time 40-goal scorer will provide a huge boost to the Wild’s offense, as well as to their power-play unit.
“Signing the biggest fish on the market as far as a guy who can potentially score 40 goals was an outstanding move,” Walz said. “I’m very excited about the term of the deal. Not sure you want to lock in for a guy that is getting a little older -- six, seven years could potentially throw a noose around the organization -- but the money is good, the term is fair and you get a guy who is a right-handed shot in the middle of the power play.”
Walz felt that was a dynamic that the Wild really missed on their man-advantage, which finished 17th in the league. Walz concedes that Vanek, a former standout at the University of Minnesota, may have to deal with added pressure playing back home, but that he will also come into training camp with something to prove following a disappointing run in the playoffs with Montreal last spring.
Whether he was placed in a position to succeed or whether he just plain underperformed, Vanek must be itching to make a statement early this season.
“I’m sure he’s going to want to come here and prove everyone wrong,” Walz said.
Joining Vanek is a loaded crop of young players that includes Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter and Charlie Coyle. But asked about which “kid” he is most intrigued to see compete this season, Walz had an unequivocal answer that some people may find surprising: Erik Haula
Though Haula played a good chunk of last season in the minors, he was “absolutely outstanding” when called up. Walz even ventured to say that he may have been one of the team’s most consistent performers down the stretch.
Walz, who played seven seasons for the Wild and served two seasons as an assistant coach for the Tampa Bay Lightning, said he recognizes some elements of Haula’s game that remind him of himself as a young player.
He thinks Haula has a great opportunity to become a standout NHL player.
“He’s a checking center, a great penalty-killer, he’s smart away from the puck, very cerebral and coachable,” Walz said. “You can’t teach the way he can skate. He’s got another gear on the ice and when he hits it, it brings people out of their seats.”
Walz saw the way Haula earned more and more trust from Yeo last season, and he expects him to pick up where he left off to continue his progression.
As for the rest of the team, Walz has no doubt the Wild will again be a playoff team, but considering the absurd level of competition in the Central Division, this season will test the club’s mettle, no doubt.
“It’s gonna be a grind right from day one,” Walz said. “It’s going to be paramount you don’t get into five-or-six game skids. It’s going to be important to try to get out of those. The teams that get out of those little funks are the teams that are gonna make it into the playoffs.”
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