Few people expected the Minnesota Wild to be on top of the NHL at Thanksgiving, but so far the Wild have had great results under rookie head coach Mike Yeo. A big factor in the team's success (13-5-3, 29 points), as is often the case for teams off to a surprising start, has been goaltending. Minnesota leads the league in both team GAA (1.92) and team save percentage (.938).
Veteran starter Niklas Backstrom is off to a strong start, which is no surprise given the stellar numbers he has accumulated over the course of his six-year NHL career. However, the main reason that Minnesota's team numbers have been so outstanding is that as well as Backstrom has played, he has actually been outdone in the early going by his backup Josh Harding.
Harding's stat line in 2011-12 reads 6-1-1 with a 1.82 GA A and a .942 save percentage. What is particularly impressive about his statistics is that, unlike many backups on other teams who play against weak opposition, Harding's slate of opponents this year has been substantially stronger than that faced by Backstrom. The combined winning percentage of the opposing team in Harding's starts is .591, and six of his eight starts have come against teams that made the playoffs last year. In contrast, Backstrom's opponents have averaged a .474 winning percentage (the equivalent of just 77 points per 82 games), and only five out of 13 starts were against 2011 playoff participants. With that caliber of opposition and his team's 28th-ranked offense, Harding has not had much room for error, racking up five of Minnesota's league-leading nine one-goal game victories this season.
Harding's breakthrough this season was not completely unexpected. The second round pick had an excellent junior career, and then posted a 2.38 GAA and .924 save percentage over three seasons in the AHL. The signs all indicated that he was ready to develop into a full-time NHLer, but repeated injury troubles have held him back, including a serious knee injury that cost him his entire 2010-11 season.
Despite the setbacks, Harding's overall save percentage numbers in his short career are very strong (.918 on 2483 shots). He does, however, have some unusual statistical splits. Despite the high save numbers, his career win/loss record is relatively poor, remaining below .500 despite his hot start in 2011 (34-40-5). This was primarily because Harding received poor goal support from the offensively-challenged Wild, but it also reflects the fact that his performance was substantially worse in games that he started and was more likely to pick up the decision.
Heading into this season, here is how Harding's numbers break down based on whether he started the game or entered in relief:
Relief appearances: 2-5-1, 1.40, .949, 234 SA
Starts: 26-34-3, 2.83, .911, 2006 SA
Those spectacular numbers are why Hockey Prospectus' Rob Vollman annually hands out the "Josh Harding Relief Award" to the goalie with the best performance coming off the bench. On the other hand, they should be of some concern when it comes to projecting Harding's performance forward as a full-time NHL starter, should an opportunity open up for him in Minnesota or somewhere else. Harding's quality start percentage was just 49% through his first five seasons, although this year he has been much better, posting seven quality starts in eight games played.
One of the closest comparables to the 27-year-old Harding's career so far is Craig Anderson. Like Harding, Anderson recorded some stellar numbers as a backup goalie, leading to Colorado taking a shot on him as a starting goalie at the age of 28 despite just 109 games played in his career to that point. Anderson's career save percentage at the end of the 2008-09 season was .911, matching the number that Harding put up in his games started. Anderson's struggles last year in Colorado and this year in Ottawa have perhaps cast some doubt on his ability to be a top NHL starter in the long term, but he was very good in 2009-10 and has been an above-average starter on the whole over the last two seasons. Even better, that performance came at a bargain price ($1.8 million cap hit for both years). Finding a backup who can put up big numbers as a starter would be a huge coup in today's salary capped league, and with Harding's hot start, many teams have to be wondering whether he has the ability to become a top-flight starter given the opportunity.
Harding's apparent breakout season is coming at exactly the right time, with the young goaltender facing unrestricted free agency this summer. A strong season could open up a potential starting job for Harding, especially since this year's class is not exactly star-studded. Unless Al Montoya establishes himself as a number-one goalie this year on Long Island, Harding looks to be clearly the best goaltending option available on the market this summer under the age of 34 (not including potential European imports).
The list from CapGeek shows only four UFA goalies with a career save percentage north of .910, and of those four, Harding is the only one to play at least 50 games in the NHL.
Next summer's FA goaltending options
Goalie Age GP Save%
Brian Elliott 26 152 .904
Al Montoya 26 31 .923
Peter Mannino 27 6 .882
Josh Harding 27 91 .918
Jonas Gustavsson 27 76 .898
Drew MacIntyre 28 3 .875
Matt Climie 28 5 .892
Mike McKenna 28 17 .887
Nathan Lawson 28 10 .893
Curtis McElhinney 28 67 .898
Adam Munro 29 17 .887
Jason Bacashihua 29 38 .897
Ray Emery 29 178 .907
Yann Danis 30 49 .912
Johan Backlund 30 1 .917
Alex Auld 30 228 .904
Michael Leighton 30 104 .902
Dany Sabourin 31 57 .898
Andrew Raycroft 31 274 .900
Dan Ellis 31 161 .909
Antero Niittymaki 31 234 .902
Curtis Sanford 32 113 .903
Niklas Backstrom has another year left on his deal at $6 million, which would suggest that Harding will likely be looking elsewhere to get his payday and a shot at a starting job. Harding's performance this season will be very important to his future career aspirations, and if he can continue to play well enough to split starts with Backstrom, then he is in a perfect position to showcase his talents behind his defensively-committed teammates in Minnesota. Teams with goaltending needs around the league will certainly be following along closely to see he can continue to realize his potential.
Philip Myrland is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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