Arizona coach Rick Tocchet learned everything he needed to know about Darcy Kuemper one day last January.
Struggling to take the reins as the Coyotes’ starting goaltender after incumbent Antti Raanta went down with a season-ending knee injury, Kuemper knew he had to make the most of his opportunity. So he came to Tocchet with a promise: he would find a way to get his game on track.
Looking back, Tocchet says he loves Kuemper for doing that. “He’s been lights-out since,” Tocchet said. “It’s never too late to establish yourself. He went from a backup to a No. 1 in less than a year. That’s a lot of credit to him and his strong-willed mentality. That’s a huge character trait for goaltenders.”
From Jan. 6 onwards, Kuemper posted a 22-9-5 record to go along with a sparkling .933 save percentage in 36 games to end the 2018-19 season. Kuemper tied for fifth in Vezina Trophy voting, garnering two second-place votes and three third-place votes from the NHL’s GMs. He had earned Arizona’s net, although there was still a recovering Raanta waiting to earn it back with a chip on his shoulder.
But Kuemper, 29, seems as dialed in this season as he was down the stretch last season. Through early November, Kuemper had a 7-3-0 record to go along with a .940 save percentage. At one point between this season and last, Kuemper had a streak of 13 consecutive games in which he allowed two goals or fewer. “I’m really comfortable with how the team plays,” he said. “Once you get a feel for that, you can get out there and make better reads. We have a lot of trust from player to player.”
However, Kuemper’s comfort level with the Coyotes extends far beyond the ice. He thoroughly enjoys Arizona’s temperate autumn, summer and winter climates. It has allowed him to better unwind away from the ice. “During the season I just love to spend time at home and play with my dog,” Kuemper said. “Just try to relax if I can and try to get my mind off hockey. Here we’re so lucky that we can lay by the pool or get in the hot tub or something like that.
“I’ve gotten better at it as I’ve gotten older. I used to always think about the last game or whatever, and now I can just turn it on when I get to the rink and turn it off as soon as I get home. I do some other things to keep myself busy.”
He calls Arizona a second home. But, in many ways, Kuemper’s ability to maintain a work/life balance during the season is due to quality time with family and friends during the off-season when he goes back to his real home in Saskatoon, Sask. There, he can catch up with family members and childhood friends while enjoying the city’s hot, dry summers.
It all compounds in Kuemper’s laid-back nature, which is well-received by teammates. For Raanta, the second half of the Coyotes’ goaltending tandem this season, it often feels like looking in a mirror. “He’s an easygoing guy,” Raanta said. “I don’t know if he’s ever stressing about anything that much. He reminds me of me a little bit, because I like to be easygoing, too. But when the puck drops, he turns that switch. It’s fun to see. Just fun to be around and always ready for a good laugh. It’s nice to have that kind of partner where you can talk about anything. It doesn’t always have to be serious. It makes it easier.”
Raanta says he and Kuemper have a fantastic relationship and will often dine together when the team is on the road. During games, they can be seen offering each other pointers or exchanging notes depending on which one of them is on the bench and which one is between the pipes.
It’s a consensus between Coyotes players and coaches that Kuemper’s accountability and even-keeled demeanor allowed him to find his stride in the NHL after several years serving strictly as a backup. “He’s a low-maintenance guy and a pleasure to coach,” said Tocchet of Kuemper, who did not find consistent success in parts of six NHL seasons with the Minnesota Wild and Los Angeles Kings.
It has also helped Raanta maintain perspective after Kuemper usurped the No. 1 spot in net, earning about two-thirds of the starts in the early going this season. “It’s easier for the goalies to talk with each other than if you go to one of the players,” Raanta said. “They might see things differently. I think you need to have a good relationship, and it can really help going forward.”