Darcy Kuemper is in a tough spot. The young goaltender hasn't had any luck convincing the Wild that he's worthy of a one-way contract or a hefty raise. And so with training camp fast approaching, and with the possibility that he won't be part of it, the 24-year-old is playing the only card he has left.
You can understand Minnesota's hesitation to give in to his demands. Harding has all of 32 games on his NHL resume-—what the stat geeks would call "a small sample"—and while he was excellent at times, that's not enough of a track record to inspire a long-term reward. The team also has concerns about his health after he was sidelined twice by concussion issues last season.
Then there's this little matter: The Wild already have two goalies, Josh Harding and Nicklas Backstrom, on one-way contracts. And while both of those men carry some heavy injury baggage of their own, both will be spry coming into camp. And if there is a problem, Ilya Bryzgalov, the hero of last season's stretch run, is eager to return and only a phone call away.
Kuemper is in a tough spot, but it's a predicament of his own making. The kid had the option of filing for arbitration, but he passed on it, probably with the understanding that his numbers weren't exactly the foundation of a no-lose case. Since they haven't dazzled Minnesota either, the possibility that he will play in Russia is his only real leverage.
But that's probably not going to do the trick. The KHL season is already underway, and while there are teams that would benefit from Kuemper's talents, not many are interested in being used as a fallback for a few weeks and then left in the lurch if/when he consummates a deal with the Wild.
Even if signing Kuemper does create an unwieldy three-headed goaltending monster, the Wild want to get a deal done. But as GM Chuck Fletcher told Star Tribune beat writer Mike Russo last week, it has to be on terms that work for the team.
"Darcy certainly has great potential and played very well in stretches for us [last] season, but at the end of the day I think he’s played around 30 games in the NHL," Fletcher said. "Usually this isn’t the time to fight for the big contract. We feel Darcy right now is trying to establish himself in the league and once he does that it’ll be a little simpler to come up with terms. Our focus right now is just on getting good deals. If we can get the right deal for the player and for the team, then it’ll give us a chance to be competitive. If we spend too much money on players before they’re ready to get the money they feel they deserve it impacts a lot of other things down the road. If we can get a deal done tomorrow, great, if it takes even into training camp, it’s really not a big deal. We’ve got great depth, we’ve got a lots of players. We are going to have to do what’s right financially to keep this thing moving forward.”
Minnesota holds all the cards. Kuemper may not like it, but saddled with no bargaining power he has to come to grips with that fact sooner or later.
In the meantime, he might want to pick up a copy of goalie Bernd Bruckler's great book, This is Russia: Life in the KHL—Doctors, bazas and millions of air miles. Compared to what goes on in Russia, Iowa, the AHL and a two-way deal might not seem so bad.