Wild acquire goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, shut down Niklas Backstrom
After informing injured veteran goalie Niklas Backstrom on Monday that he would be shut down the rest of the season, Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher intensified his search for a replacement in the net.
He was looking for a veteran, someone with playoff experience — and in the final year of an expiring contract.
On Tuesday, a day before the NHL trade deadline, Fletcher found his man, picking up 33-year-old Ilya Bryzgalov from the Edmonton Oilers for a fourth-round draft pick.
With Backstrom and Josh Harding sidelined, Bryzgalov is expected to back up 23-year rookie Darcy Kuemper in goal the rest of the season.
“He’s a goaltender that’s certainly playing very well right now and can give us some depth and fit well with Darcy Kuemper as we go down the stretch,” Fletcher said of Bryzgalov, a Russian who has been playing in the U.S. since the 2001-02 season. “He’s had some very good seasons in this league.”
Kuemper has started the past 15 games for the Wild (34-21-7) and is set to remain the top goaltender as they make a run at a Western Conference playoff spot over the final 20 games of the season.
Backstrom, 36, has played just 21 games because of abdominal issues that have limited him since the season started. He is 5-11-2 after going 24-15-2 in yeoman duty for the Wild last season.
At this point, Fletcher said, the team wants to shut down Backstrom to make sure he’s healthy for the start of the 2014-15 season. Backstrom still has two seasons left on his contract, a primary reason Fletcher wanted his incoming goalie to have an expiring contract.
Fletcher said Backstrom likely will need surgery, but didn’t provide specifics.
“I give Nik a lot of credit,” Fletcher said. “I think a lot of goaltenders would’ve shut down a month or two ago. He’s battled through it all year. I’m not quite sure he’s ever been healthy.”
The trade was made under the assumption that both Backstrom and Harding are out for the remainder of the season.
After performing as one of the NHL’s top goalies the first half of the season, Harding, out since Dec. 31, has not skated over the past nine weeks, taking time off to adjust to medication to treat multiple sclerosis. He was playing his best hockey of his career over the first three months of the season, going 18-7-3. His 1.65 goals-against average still leads the NHL by a longshot, and his .933 save percentage is second in the league.
“If Josh is able to come back, it’d be tremendous, and certainty we’d bring him back and let him compete,” Fletcher said. “But at this point, we have to make the assumption that Nik and Josh will not be playing for us this year and this is the direction we’ve chosen to go.”
That leaves the Wild dependent on two goalies who weren’t around at the start of the season.
Kuemper was the organization’s No. 3 goalie entering the season, but he moved into the top spot in early January when Harding couldn’t return. After seven seasons in the NHL, Bryzgalov had his contract in Philadelphia bought out over the summer. He spent the first part of this season without a team before signing with Edmonton.
Playing behind the Oilers’ poor defense, Bryzgalov posted a 5-8-5 record with a .908 save percentage and 3.01 goals-against average in 20 games.
He became a familiar foe to the Wild during two season as a backup goalie in Anaheim and four seasons as a starter in Phoenix. He was 3-1 with a 2.00 GAA against the Wild in the first round of the 2007 playoffs, filling in for the Ducks when starter Jean-Sebastien Giguere was out for personal reasons.
Now, with the Wild trying building a cushion in the Western Conference wild-card race, Bryzgalov has a chance to make the playoffs for the sixth time.
“I look at this as a great opportunity for me to play, and it’s like a new challenge because it’s a new team,” he said. “I know the Minnesota Wild are in a playoff spot and fighting for a playoff spot. It’s the most exciting time of the year when you’re fighting for the playoffs.”
Before the trade, Wild coach Mike Yeo said at his morning media session that Kuemper, 11-3-2 with a 2.19 goals-against average in 18 games, likely would remain the team’s starter the rest of the season.
But with the Wild playing 20 games in 37 days starting Saturday at Dallas, a backup goalie was needed to spell Kuemper on occasion.
Kuemper is expected to start Saturday night’s game against the Stars, and Bryzgalov likely will make his Wild debut Sunday night at home against the St. Louis Blues.
“There’s no question he’s done enough that we’re going to keep giving him opportunity to go out there and show what he’s done,” Yeo said of Kuemper. “In large part, (we’re) where we are right now because of the job he’s done. We love his potential, but more than that we love the way he’s playing right now.”
The Wild considered several other goalies, including Jaroslav Halak of St. Louis and future hall of famer Martin Brodeur of New Jersey, but weren’t willing to give up a higher draft pick or one of their talented young players.
For Backstrom, who signed a three-year contract over the summer, this has been a difficult, frustrating season.
He didn’t fully heal from offseason surgery over the summer, strained his knee in the third game of the season, and then suffered a concussion Nov. 13.
“I’m sure it’s been extremely difficult for him,” Yeo said before the trade. “He’s a guy that is very proud, and that’s a part of what makes him such a great competitor. So it’s frustrating for him not being at 100 percent and not having the opportunity to get out there. But I think he’s handled it unbelievably well.”
Follow Chad Graff at twitter.com/ChadGraff.