No one expected this.
Josh Harding was signed to a 1 year, $750K deal after Jose Theodore left this summer. Everyone thought it was a fine move. Harding got a year to showcase himself him after losing a contract year to injury, and the Wild got a solid backup who they had thought at one point could be their starter.
And then Harding blew up. Harding has been dominating at backup duty, putting up a .932 SV% over 13 games and 11 starts, and would likely be the starting goaltender right now if the current starter, Niklas Backstrom, wasn’t putting up Vezina numbers too. Together, they’ve become arguably the best goaltending tandem in the league (only Boston can claim they’re better), propelling the Wild to the top of the NHL.
So why trade this guy?
Josh Harding, through no fault of his own, has no future with the Wild past July 1, 2012. In 2007, the reigns were going to be given to him, and he was passed over because Backstrom was a revelation. Even now, with a year and a half left on Backstrom’s contract, it wouldn’t make sense to extend Harding and put him in the “Goalie of the Future” role. Matt Hackett and Darcy Kuemper are still in the system, and one (if not both) of them will be ready for the number one role if Bax is not brought back in 2013, both for less money than Harding could command this summer. Hackett is ready to at least be a backup NOW.
Throw that in with the fact that Harding could be one of the best assets on the trade market this season. Not only is he a young goalie who is having a great season, but he makes only 750K! You know how you roll your eyes when someone talks about how the Wild should trade Niklas Backstrom, because no one (except Philly and Nashville) wants a 6 million dollar goalie anymore? Yeah, Harding’s the opposite of that. According to CapGeek, only Washington, Vancouver, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Philly, Montreal, and Toronto are the only teams that couldn’t absorb the $484,000 left on Harding’s contract. From the standpoint of building a team, the Wild can’t afford to let a great asset like Harding go away for nothing, especially considering how deep the Wild are in net.
So now the question is: Who should they target for Harding?
The answer, to me, is easy. The Wild are deep at forward and at net. That leaves the defense. Marco Scandella and Jonas Brodin are the only young defensemen the Wild have who possess significant upside . There is no denying this*. Apologies to Spurgeon, Prosser, Falk, and Stoner, but they’re more depth-type guys. Quality depth for sure, depth that’s essential to every hockey team, but they don’t have the potential to be stars that Scandella and Brodin do. It’s really important that the Wild go out and try to land a young, high-end blueliner in the next year, and I think it’s possible to get that guy with Harding. I don’t think they’ll get a return as crazy as the Semyon Varlamov trade (A likely lottery pick and a second rounder), but I think something along the lines of the Jaroslav Halak trade (A top prospect, in that case, Lars Eller, perhaps with a second or third round draft pick going one way or the other) is possible. If I’m Chuck Fletcher, my list of target teams for Harding is as follows:
6. Washington Capitals. I’m putting them here as a long shot, because they seem to have faith that proven Vokoun and talented Neuvirth will get it together. But if they panic, and start looking for keeper help, I’d look at targeting Dmitri Orlov, an offensive defenseman from Russia that’s doing well in the A after three years in the KHL.
5. Edmonton Oilers. Khabibulin isn’t going to last forever, and Dubnyk hasn’t appeared to be anything special as his backup, but he’s still developing. Oscar Klefbom seems to be an asset that I’d like to see the Wild get, and Jeff Petry seems like a good two-way guy, but I have my doubts that the Oil would make a Klefbom for Harding trade. Even with good goaltending, Edmonton is 12th in the conference, and their weakness is at the blue line. Unless they’re 100% convinced Harding would be their Goalie of the Future, Edmonton stands pat with their young talent.
4. Tampa Bay Lightning. I put them here for need only, really, as they could surely use a goaltender like Harding. I just don’t see a fit, not only with the defensive prospects, but with anyone in the Lightning’s system. They’re not trading Brett Connolly (which, if they were, I’d say “Screw the Defense”, and do that deal in a heartbeat), and they don’t have anyone else. Too bad, because if Harding came in and put up a .932 SV% behind an ACTUAL passive 1-4 trap, then they’d make the playoffs.
3. Ottawa Senators. Craig Anderson is bad, and backup Alex Auld is even worse.
Yet, the Senators are still on the fringes of playoff contention. The Senators could really use a guy like Harding. They just traded David Rundblad, so I don’t know if the Sens would be willing to give up another D prospect like Jared Cowen. However, their goaltending issues and proximity to the 8 seed make flipping Cowen for Harding a possibility.
2. Columbus Blue Jackets. In the Hypothetical Josh Harding Sweepstakes, Columbus is basically Edmonton, but on crack. Worse goaltending (Steve Mason and Curtis Sanford), better defensive prospects (David Savard, John Moore, and Cody Goloubef, in order of desirability), better NHL defensive depth (Wisniewski, Tyutin, Clitsome). Sadly, they have even less to play for, as they are dead last in hockey, so the immediate need for Harding isn’t there. Still, if the Jackets think Harding is their guy, a Savard for Harding deal seems like the framework for a damn good deal for both sides.
1. New Jersey Devils. The Devils would be my number one trade target. Martin Brodeur has a .886 SV%- the third worst in hockey- while backup Johan Hedberg is 38 and has an OK, but unimpressive .913 SV% of his own. New Jersey is in 5th place in the Eastern Conference, and acquiring Harding could go a long way to making sure the Devils stay in the playoff bubble. New Jersey also has an excellent defensive prospect in Jon Merrill, a University of Michigan player with a high hockey IQ and a great skill set. He has been suspended by his team indefinitely, but he’s in good shape now, and the suspension might make the Devils more willing to part with him, especially with the advent of Adam Larsson on the big club.
Harding’s been one of the best stories all year, and a rock in goal when the Wild have needed it the most, but if the Wild can land a Merrill, Savard, or Cowen for him, they have to do it. It won’t do harm for the organization, they’ll have a great asset in a position of (semi) need for a goalie that doesn’t factor in their future plans. It won’t do the team any harm, Hackett can step in right away as the backup, and there’ll be another stud blueliner competing for a spot next year. And it won’t do Harding any harm, he’ll be put in position to be a starting goaltender in the NHL. It would be a good deal for everyone.
*I didn’t count Cuma, because I don’t know whether he can still live up to his draft position, or if knee injuries ruined him. I don’t know where to rank the guy.