Minnesota Wild goaltender Josh Harding already seemed likely to hit the marketplace as an unrestricted free agent this summer.
But that possibility became a certainty when his team signed Swedish goaltender Johan Gustafsson, a sixth-round pick in the 2010 draft, to a standard entry-level contract.
Gustafsson joins Houston Aeros goaltenders Matt Hackett and Darcy Kuemper in the competition to back up Nicklas Backstrom in goal. And with Backstrom entering the final year of his contract, positioning three elite prospect behind him gives the franchise some long-term options in goal.
Gustafsson, 20, helped Sweden to a gold medal in the World Junior Championship in January. He also posted great ratios for Lulea HF in the Swedish Elite League – a .929 save percentage and 1.74 goals-against average in 29 games.
Harding was 13-12-4 for the Wild last season with a 2.62 GAA and a .917 save percentage. That represented a solid bounce-back major knee surgery and his dismal, injury-plagued 2009-10 season (9-12-0, 3.05, .905).
"I went out there and showed I can definitely play in this league and I'm healthy," Harding told the Regina Leader-Post. "Coming off major knee surgery like that I knew there were going to be some bumps in the road but right now I feel 100 per cent. The knee stayed healthy the whole year, which was great. I played the most games I played in my NHL career (34) so I'm obviously happy to be able to do that.
"For a goalie, it's pretty tough to come back from (an injury like that) sometimes. It was just relieving and a different mindset going out there playing the game I love and not having any restrictions. At first it was a little tough to trust the knee but now ... I don't even think about it. I'm happy with my personal performance and the good thing is I know I have a lot better in me too. From here on it's going to get better and better."