Now that Justin Fontaine has signed on with the Wild for another two years, only two pieces remain to bring back into the fold for the Wild, assuming no other free agent signings or trades happen this summer; two scenarios that seem unlikely at this point.
If you read Michael Russo’s column in the Star Tribune this morning, you may know that those two pieces are forward Nino Niederreiter and goalie Darcy Kuemper, and while negotiations with the former seem to be promising, talks with the latter haven’t been nearly as encouraging to date.
Actually, that isn’t even a fair assessment, as negotiations with Kuemper’s agent have been fairly non-existent, which is at best strange, and at worst cause for concern.
With Niederreiter, both sides seem to agree on the type of contract involved; somewhere in between a two-to-four year “bridge” contract, but figuring out the particulars of said contract is taking some time. While everyone would like to see Niederreiter locked up ASAP, as he seems like a key component to the future of the franchise (especially if he can vault off of his impressive playoff performance into next season), at least both sides appear to be relatively on the same page. If that is the case, feel free to take your time working out the finer details.
The Kuemper situation, however, seems very different. Now, before you get the idea that I’m making something out of nothing, it is very possible that this situation is just taking longer than both sides would like. In the end, Kuemper may be brought in before training camp on a very reasonable deal, and this will be a non-story. That is certainly the hope, but there are a few quotes in the article that portend a difficult negotiation. Here we go:
Quote 1: “Darcy 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.”
Translation (with liberties): Who in the hell does this kid think he is? Alright, maybe Fletcher isn’t actually thinking that, but he has a point. Kuemper has played in some high profile spots. He has playoff experience in two separate seasons, and has popped up for some key games in the past two regular seasons. However, he has only played 32 regular season games (and eight in the playoffs). That is hardly a sample size. The article doesn’t say exactly what Kuemper is seeking, but it seems to imply that it is a long-term deal. And he’s doing this on the basis of essentially a half-season of NHL action, and one in which his save percentage is below .920. Good luck with that.
Quote 2: “I wouldn’t say there’s been enough conversations to say it’s going to be a battle,” Fletcher said.
While it is encouraging that Fletcher thinks it will be amicable, it is equally troubling that, two days before August begins (a month in which Russo rightfully describes as an “unofficial hiatus” month for the NHL) there has barely been any contact. If Fletcher hasn’t spoken to Kuemper or his agent, how does he know what they are after, or what lies ahead? Remember, this is a player who was difficult to get signed to an entry-level deal three years ago. Why would his first truly negotiable contract be any easier?
Again, let’s hope this ends up being a non-issue, but the warning signs are there. And with Kuemper’s decision not to file for arbitration giving him the option to hold out, each side has their own leverage. Kuemper can bring to the table the (rightfully true) notion that while he is no sure thing, he is the healthiest of the three goaltenders the Wild are looking at using next season, and with the most upside to boot. The Wild can counter with the fact that Kuemper’s service time in the NHL is barely enough to put together a decent detailed scouting report, and should Harding and Backstrom both be healthy fur the full year next season (admittedly this is a long shot) he may not even see the ice in and NHL arena until 2015-16.
So with both sides having some sort of leg to stand on, this could become a competition to see who keeps their balance the longest. For the sake of a team and a fan base that is riding a nearly unchecked wave of upward momentum, let’s hope it doesn’t.