In the first two games of the season, Minnesota Wild netminder Darcy Kuemper blanked the Colorado Avalanche in a home-and-home set. By Oct. 23, he had three shutouts, and was leading all goaltenders in just about every key statistical category imaginable. Things haven’t gone so well since then.
From Oct. 25 to Jan. 7, Kuemper has won just 10 games, lost 13, and has had a sub-.900 save percentage in 11 outings, almost half of his appearances in goal. On Tuesday, after missing six games with a lower-body injury and making one relief appearance, the 24-year-old goaltender was assigned to the AHL’s Iowa Wild on a conditioning stint. If he hopes to get his 2014-15 campaign back on track, now’s the time to do it.
What will make things increasingly difficult for Kuemper is that now, unlike before when he was battling an aging Niklas Backstrom for the starting goaltending job, the Saskatoon native will have to attempt to steal the job from Devan Dubnyk, the goaltender Minnesota acquired from the Arizona Coyotes on Jan. 14.
Dubnyk, arguably the best goaltender currently under contract with the Wild, made a believer out of his doubters with his performance in Arizona this season. In 19 appearances with the Coyotes, the 28-year-old netminder posted a 2.72 goals-against average and .916 SP and led some to believe that it may be time for the Coyotes to move on from long-time goaltender Mike Smith. Arizona GM Don Maloney, who has committed to Smith on a long-term deal until 2018-19, instead sent Dubnyk packing.
But, were it not for Kuemper’s performance pre-injury, Dubnyk may still be in Arizona. Kuemper was unable to put up even respectable numbers following his hot start. On a team with some of the best underlying possession statistics in the NHL, Kuemper ranked 52nd in SP of 61 goaltenders that had played at least 300 minutes at 5-on-5. Luckily for him, and his chances at the starting job, Backstrom was even worse.
It got to the point, really, where Minnesota was almost begging for a save. Following a Jan. 6 loss to San Jose, Wild coach Mike Yeo tried his best to protect his goaltender’s confidence, but couldn’t help show his frustration.
“We’re not in a position where we can have anybody be below average, and it always starts and ends with goaltending,” Yeo said to the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune. “It’s a tricky one trying to be sensitive to his confidence, but that goal in overtime can’t go in.”
Now with the demotion, Kuemper will have to get his confidence back. He started his return well, stopping all 14 shots he faced in a relief appearance against the Detroit Red Wings on Jan. 20. However, the conditioning stint will allow Kuemper to increase his playing time and, hopefully, instill confidence back in his game.
He last appeared in the AHL in 2013-14, suiting up for 17 games, posting a 7-10 record with a .929 SP and 2.47 GAA. If those numbers are indicative of the play the Wild can expect from Kuemper in the AHL, he may be back in the NHL sooner rather than later. That said, according to the CBA, Kuemper could spend up to two weeks in the AHL.
Kuemper’s season can still be salvaged, but the same may not be able to be said of the Wild, who are seven points out of the second wild card spot and possibly too far out of it to make a push for the playoffs. More important now is that the team assures Kuemper is ready next season. If that means additional time in the AHL after his conditioning stint, there are worse fates the young netminder could suffer.