Ah, how a season changes things. During the 2017-18 season, goaltender injuries and inconsistent backups would lead to six goaltenders would suiting up for Arizona Coyotes. Antti Raanta would finish the season as the only goalie who played a full game with a save percentage above .900. It soon became clear that if Raanta sustained another injury the team would need something other then another carousel of backups and minor leaguers to be successful. To prevent that from happening again GM Chayka needed to make a move to secure the Coyotes’ crease for the upcoming season.
To solve their problems in goal the Coyotes decided to send Tobias Rieder, a pending restricted free agent who would probably not re-sign with the team, and backup Scott Wedgewood to the Los Angeles Kings on February 21st for backup netminder Darcy Kuemper. Almost immediately the Coyotes re-signed Kuemper to a two-year, $3.7 million contract extension.
Kuemper was originally drafted by the Minnesota Wild in 2009 161st overall. He would serve as a backup for numerous Wild goaltenders, including former Coyotes Ilya Bryzgalov and Devan Dubnyk. During the 2017 offseason he would leave the Wild as a free agent having played in 102 games in Minnesota with a .910 save percentage, a 2.60 goals against average, and having recorded seven shutouts.
Kuemper would sign a one-year deal with the Los Angeles Kings in a move that may come to define his career. With the Kings he appeared in 19 games and boosted a 2.10 goals against average and a .932 save percentage. While Kuemper has historically been a solid backup, his numbers weren’t never that high. Considering Los Angeles finished that season with a league leading goals against (202) and the best penalty kill (85.0%) it seemed likely that Kuemper’s numbers were being artificially inflated by LA’s system.
We may never know if the Coyotes’ management suspected that the Kuemper’s numbers were boosted by Los Angeles’ system. At the time it looked like they were buying high, but the way the team traded for and then immediately extended Kuemper they seemed to think he was the piece that they needed moving forward.
In his first shortened season with the Coyotes Kuemper would struggle. He appeared in only 10 games and had a 3.22 goals against average and for the first time in his career his save percentage was below .900. Adjusting to a new system can prove to be a challenge, but at the time it looked like the Coyotes had committed to an over-hyped backup.
In his first full season with the Coyotes Kuemper would come into his own and force himself into the team MVP conversation. In 55 games he boasted a .925 save percentage (8th in the NHL among goalies who played at least 30 games) and 2.33 goals against average (6th) along with 5 shutouts (tied for 6th). At even strength Kuemper’s save percentage is .927 (tied for 12th) and he even managed a respectable power play save percentage of .897 (7th). The silver lining of the Coyotes roller coaster season was the consistently stellar penalty kill (tied for 1st at 85.0%) and Kuemper was a big part of that.
When the team lost Raanta to injuries again Kuemper was able to step up and prove to be the rock that the Coyotes need. Partly on the back of Darcy Kuemper the team got closer to the playoffs then they have in seasons, all for the discounted price of $1.35 million a year. Its tough to say what the Coyotes’ goaltending situation will look like when the 2019-20 season begins, but Arizona may get a chance to have one of the best tandems in the NHL.
I will be the first to say that I was wrong about Kuemper. His time in Minnesota didn’t impress and his numbers with the Kings seemed unsustainable. In his 10 games during the 2017-18 season he didn’t inspire much confidence, and it was beginning to look like the team bought high on an overpriced backup. But last season something had changed and he was able to bring his play to another level. He was not just playing extremely well but he was able to prove to be a calming factor for the team. Its fair to say that when the team acquired Darcy Kuemper for a rental and a backup they were unknowingly bringing in the most important part of the 2018-19 Coyotes’ roster.