With the news this morning that Minnesota Wild goaltender Josh Harding is likely to miss the entire season with a torn ACL and MCL, I found myself thinking about the incredible impact that luck and opportunity can have on a player’s career. It is especially potent for goaltenders, who have such limited job openings and rarely get a chance to work through their struggles, but it applies to all positions.
Harding, of course, has been a starter in waiting for years now. He was a highly regarded prospect when Minnesota drafted him out of the WHL in the second round of the 2004 Entry Draft, and his numbers only improved in two subsequent WHL seasons. He had a tremendous professional debut with Houston of the AHL, outplaying Mike Smith, a quality goaltender in his own right, and putting up a 0.930 SV% in a year where AHL shooters were as good as they’ve been in recent memory (the 2004-05 NHL lockout season). He followed that up with two more solid years in the AHL, made a solid NHL debut in 2007-08 and performed brilliantly in limited action in 2008-09. His resume was a string of successes, each subsequent one occurring at a higher level.
2009-10 ought to have been Harding’s breakout year. Niklas Backstrom struggled, allowing an unexpected opening, but Harding fought injuries throughout the year, including a nagging hip injury that finally ended his season. His performance suffered as well, and he was unable to put any kind of significant gap between himself and Backstrom, with both performing at a level below that of the average NHL starter.
Still, it wasn’t all bad news; at least Harding entered this season with a legitimate shot at unseating Backstrom, should he continue to struggle. At the very least, he might have made himself attractive to other teams, as a 26 year old with a shining resume and starter-like numbers. Instead, he’s likely to miss the entire season, and will enter 2011-12 coming off his second consecutive injury-plagued season, attempting to rebound from a lost year, and a year older to boot. It’s a bitter pill to swallow.
On the other hand, Anton Khudobin now finds himself in a remarkable position. The Kazakh goaltender was a late pick in 2004, and doesn’t have a resume that can come close to Harding’s: he started his professional career strongly in the ECHL before faltering the following season. In his first full AHL season, last year, he put up decidedly average numbers over a 40 game span.
Now, assuming the Wild don’t bring in another goaltender (they’re certainly available, but the timing is less than ideal) he’s slated to be the NHL backup to a starter who looked vulnerable last season. A hot stretch here – or even an average stretch, assuming he gets a significant amount of playing time – could get his foot in the door, and at just 24 years of age teams could see potential in him.
So, with a single awkward pre-season hit (see the video below), the careers of two NHL goaltenders veer sharply up and sharply down; a can’t-miss prospect is in real danger, while a modestly talented long-shot may get the opportunity of a lifetime.