Things change fast in the world of goaltending, and if you’re not ready, rare opportunities will pass you by.
The Wild were leaning towards starting Josh Harding tonight in Vancouver after Niklas Backstrom earned a 2-1 shootout win last night in Calgary. But Harding was not feeling so hot today, which the organization fully expected considering he was dealing with possible side effects from his Multiple Sclerosis medications.
So after some honest conversations with the coaching staff and GM Chuck Fletcher, the Wild decided to recall Darcy Kuemper from Houston. And by the time Mike Yeo was having his pregame chat with media, everyone was buzzing about Kuemper possibly making his NHL debut.
Sure enough, Yeo confirmed it, and now we’re all just waiting to see how Kuemper handles this rare opportunity.
Just like Petr Mrazek did prior to his NHL debut against the Blues last week, Kuemper will get his first taste of the NHL after a very strong stretch of hockey in the AHL. He posted a 38-save shutout in a 2-0 win over Rockford in his most recent game back on Saturday, and in his last four games, he has stopped 117 of 122 shots (2-2-0).
Back in January, Kuemper won three straight games in four days and stopped 91 of 95 shots, with a 28-save shutout in Grand Rapids sandwiched in the middle. That made him 7-3-0 in his last 10 games for Houston, dating back to Dec. 28, 2012.
Heading into tonight’s game, Kuemper was 10-6-0 with a 1.79 goals-against average, .938 save percentage, and four shutouts. With that type of momentum pushing his confidence to new heights, it made a lot more sense for the Wild to recall him over Matt Hackett.
I had a chance to meet and chat with Kuemper back in early-October during Houston’s training camp, which was held here in the Twin Cities at the XCEL Energy Center. I was really impressed with his positive attitude concerning his off-season rehab from season-ending shoulder surgery, and it was easy to tell he was extremely happy and appreciative to have been cleared by doctors in time to participate in training camp.
You can read my profile and interview on Kuemper right here, which provides more background on Kuemper’s path to this exact moment in time.
Toss in a few reassignments to Orlando (ECHL) earlier in the season, and you have a great young prospect that has done everything the organization has asked of him in order to earn this opportunity.
19:14 – Kuemper’s first touch and handle came on a slow dump-in, and he handled it well with a simple backhand pass to the corner.
15:00 – The Wild had an early PP opportunity, but it was run terribly. Kuemper did not see a shot through the first five minutes of the game, which is never easy for a goalie making his NHL debut — tons of thinking and no doing.
14:32 – A floating wrister from the point was deflected in front of the net by Schroeder, but Kuemper absorbed it and sealed the ice well.
13:29 – Kuemper made a full butterfly save on a sharp-angle shot in tight on his right side. This was a good sign to me because he actually came off his post, made himself big, and gave the shooter absolutely no chance to slip a puck underneath. He sits very tall in the butterfly, so there’s not much space over the shoulder, either. No fancy VHS here, just a comfortable and appropriate save selection.
11:45 – Kuemper used a good active stick to deflect away a low shot to the blocker side, which directed the puck to the glass instead of somewhere in the middle of the ice.
10:00 – Despite facing a little more pressure over the past few minutes, Kuemper looked relaxed and in control in the first 10 minutes of his NHL career.
8:27 – Kuemper faced his first power play, and the defense did a very good job of not allowing any good scoring opportunities until Bieksa fired home a one-timer off a pass from the right half-boards by Kassian. The shot was well-placed — under the blocker and over the right pad. Kuemper was caught a bit deep in his net and never had a pulse on the shot, which certainly surprised him. This was his ninth shot on goal, and he was moving well and in a relaxed manner leading up to the goal.
3:54 – The Wild were pinned in their zone for a solid 85 seconds and Kuemper bailed out his team by coming across right to left to stop a solid one-timer labeled for the inside post. Good rebound control as well, as the puck was directed off the pad and towards the left boards. That was a timely save at the end of a rough shift for the Wild.
3:00 – Kuemper handled a breakaway by Burrows nicely after Brodin turned it over at the far blue line. He was patient and let Burrows make the first move, but the puck appeared to roll off his stick, so it was fired wide. Kuemper was alert and athletic to cover the loose puck in the trapezoid off his left post.
Kuemper stopped 12 of 13 shots in the first period and moved very well. He was more aggressive than I expected, which was a good sign. More thoughts to come soon!
17:10 – Kuemper made a routine save on a low shot from just above the top of the circles by Burrows, but he utilized the stick properly to steer the puck towards the right boards — good rebound control.
12:00 – Vancouver had just three shots in the first eight minutes of the second period, so not much action for Kuemper. I did notice that he likes to be aggressive with his depth when killing penalties. He’s not afraid to get to the top of his crease and push off bodies to create more space. I also like how his hands are held away from his hips, so while
10:57 – Hansen received a smooth cross-ice pass from Ballard and fired a wrist shot right over Kuemper’s head, who was unbalanced and uncontrolled while pushing right to left. This was a real weak defensive play along the boards from the Wild, and they got caught chasing the play after losing the board battle. Nobody was in front to help cover or block out Hansen, who had time and space to pick his spot and wire it right over Kuemper. He was not very smooth trying to push across, but he didn’t have much support on the goal.
6:57 – Setoguchi scored to cut Vancouver’s lead in half, 2-1.
6:38 – Kuemper showed some good desperation and athleticism by diving to his right with the paddle stretched out on a broken play, but the shot hit the outside of the net. He then displayed some aggressiveness by getting to the top of his paint to freeze a low shot along the ice despite a body right on top of him.
0:35 – Kuemper displayed good rebound control once again on a shot from the left wing, directing Hansen’s shot from the half-boards to the left corner. Hansen then fired the puck from below the goal line on Kuemper, but he absorbed the puck against his blocker arm and his chest. The puck then dropped in the blue paint right next to his left foot, but the whistle blew before Canucks players could jam the puck past the goal line.
The Canucks had just eight shots in the second period and nine scoring chances through two periods. Despite the 2-1 deficit, I liked how comfortable Kuemper looked. His patience was an impressive trait, as he wasn’t dropping early, lunging with the hands, or reaching unnecessarily.
Kuemper made 19 saves on 21 shots through 40 minutes and continued to have a solid debut.
19:37 – One of Kuemper’s best saves tonight came on a partial breakaway by Daniel Sedin, who pounced on a floating dump-in and cut in front of the net from the right, then shoveled a low shot against the grain back to the right post. Darcy was about to jump out and play the puck, but thought better of it and re-positioned himself, reeled in his stick, and again showed some good patience on his skates. He dragged the right pad quickly to make the save with the right foot, which was sealed to the ice nicely. This was a good display of his raw athleticism and good decision-making.
15:22 – A bad turnover behind his net by trying to complete a backhand, no-look pass to his teammate. It was intercepted and funneled to the crease, but he recovered quickly and sticked the puck away. It was a bad pass, a bad play, and he was fortunate to escape without allowing a bad goal.
11:20 – Kuemper committed another turnover after the Wild’s PP expired. He tried to fire a puck up the ice along the right boards, but didn’t realize that Burrows was coming out of the box, so the puck was intercepted and brought back down, but once again, no harm done.
10:00 – The Wild skated really well in the third period and played better in front of Kuemper. Aside from Sedin’s partial breakaway, he didn’t face any difficult scoring chances. The Wild desperately tried to create some scoring chances of their own, but Luongo continued his recent dominance of the Wild.
6:01 – Kuemper did a good job finding and covering a loose puck on a broken play in front of the net after the puck was centered from the right goal line after Sedin spun and fired it off the paddle of his stick. Kuemper had good support in front of the net, so all he had to do was make himself big, use his stick to bat at the loose puck, then cover it as it came off his right pad in the crease.
4:26 – Kuemper displayed some good patience with a full butterfly save on a nice low backhand shot from Higgins just below the left faceoff dot. He didn’t drop early and he didn’t direct the rebound out into the slot. It wasn’t a tough save, but it was technically sound.
Kuemper made all nine saves he faced in the third period and finished the game with 28 saves on 30 shots. His debut was pretty impressive, especially considering the pressure that came with playing on the road in Vancouver, and not facing a shot in the first five minutes.
What stood out to me the most in this game was Kuemper’s overall patience. For a big guy that is known for having high levels of athleticism, he did a good job of letting plays come to him. He was patient in the butterfly as well, letting pucks hit him and then direct off his pads or stick away from the middle of the ice.
I thought his rebound control was very good overall, and it was especially sharp on the shots he was able to see into his body. I didn’t consider either of the two goals he allowed to be of the weak variety, and he stayed composed and sharp after allowing each goal.
He obviously needed to be more careful handling the puck, as he had a few glaring turnovers. I also think he has to work on his footwork and positioning when pucks are below the goal line, moving side to side.
Some of his slides in the down position were unbalanced, which is something you’ll see with most NHL rookies due to the increased speed of plays developing around them. His transitions from being down to recovering back up to his skates were quick and smooth, a great combination to have for a guy his size.
Finally, I also liked how Kuemper worked fairly hard to keep an eye on pucks through traffic and screens, and how he utilized his frame to play big by being aggressive with his depth and angles.
The Wild already have a very talented crop of goalie prospects with Hackett and Swedish star Johan Gustafsson, but adding Kuemper into the mix makes them one of the deepest teams in the league. Another full year in the AHL and he’ll be more consistent and polished, but it may be two more years until Kuemper is ready to be a full-time NHL goaltender.
Regardless of the projected timeline for Kuemper’s NHL readiness, with a 6-foot-4 frame and quality athleticism, more opportunities to play at the NHL level are going to come. It’s just a matter of when.