It was far from an ideal situation for the Minnesota Wild, something no one was hoping for and most were cheering against, but when Josh Harding was unable to play because of lingering side effects from medication to treat Multiple Sclerosis, it gave Darcy Kuemper an unexpected opportunity to make his NHL debut this week.
Kuemper made the most of it, even in a losing cause.
The 22-year-old finished with 28-saves in a 2-1 loss, beat only by a power play one-timer off the rush and a pretty tic-tac-toe passing play that left the finisher with enough time and space to go bar-down from close range. More importantly, he gave the Wild a chance to win, including a breakaway save on Daniel Sedin in the opening minute of the third period, only to be let down by a struggling offense that failed to convert against a red-hot Roberto Luongo at the other end.
“I thought he was very good and it’s not an easy game to throw him into,” Wild coach Mike Yeo said. “I give him a lot of credit. He looked confident, made saves, and played the puck well. It was a good showing for him.”
Not bad for a goaltender coming off shoulder surgery that ended his last season early and left him starting this season in the ECHL. But after getting called up to the Houston Aeros and dominating in 16 games, including a .938 save percentage and 1.79 goals-against average that both ranked second in the American Hockey League, it was Kuemper that got the call ahead of fellow top prospect Matt Hackett, who made his NHL debut last season, when Harding couldn’t play the second half of back-to-back games.
The Saskatoon-born goalie didn’t find out until Monday that he’d be starting Tuesday, but outside of a couple of pucks bouncing off him early, rarely looked fazed, smiling widely as he came off the ice in warm ups and again as he answered questions after the loss. Evidently the grin betrayed some nerves, at least early on in his NHL debut.
“Pretty nervous to start, really excited and almost a numb feeling,” Kuemper said. “But once warm ups started and I started feeling a few pucks I just tried to treat it like another game, I felt pretty good in there and it was quite the experience.”
Like a lot of goaltenders, sticking to a routine helped calm Kuemper’s nerves.
“The most nervous part was when I first found out and got to the rink this morning, but once you started going through the same routine you go through everyday it really helps calm yourself down and you start treating it like another game,” he said.
Even if it clearly wasn’t.
“It’s pretty surreal, guys you’ve been watching as a fan, to be out there playing against them, it’s a childhood dream come true,” said Kuemper, who was picked by the Wild in the sixth round, 161st overall, of the 2009 NHL Draft. “Just to get your feet wet and see that you can play at that level, it gives you so much more to strive for. Obviously I got a lot to work on but I know I can hang in there, so it’s just about trying to get better and stay here full time.”
As Kuemper noted, that may take time. There were a few nervous moments, a couple of mis-reads, and a little over-pursuit of the puck early on that isn’t necessary for a 6-foot-4 stopper. But time and pro experience – this is just his second season since ending his junior career in Red Deer with a CHL Goalie of the Year award – will go a long way to curing all those ailments, and there were certainly a lot more positives than negatives in his debut.
They were well documented in a detailed game report by Justin Goldman of McKeen’s Hockey and The Goalie Guild, but watching Kuemper go through the paces in person at the morning skate and again at ice level during warm ups, the thing that jumped out most was just how smooth he moved for such a big body, and how comfortable he seemed with the block/react dynamic.
Kuemper showed off an easy but effective catching motion and an active glove hand overall, something he wasn’t afraid to use during the game. That included once sliding well out of his net to snare a puck that was headed wide, which wouldn’t always be a positive, but considering the Wild had been pinned in their own zone through a complete line change by the Canucks and there was no tip threat on that side that could have made him pay for coming so far out, it showed great game awareness and management to freeze the play and give his teammates a chance to get off the ice and change lines before the ensuing face-off.
Kuemper may have been even more impressive, however, when he wasn’t flashing leather. His ability to seal holes under the arms in more of a blocking situation – but without locking up and becoming so rigid pucks bounced off him – was readily evident throughout the day. The lanky stopper maintains soft seams along the arms and swallowed shots into his blocking coverage, showing off a nice balance between active hands up high when needed, and closing holes with arms dropped in other situations, all while maintaining a tight seal along the ice as well, quickly closing the five hole back after lateral pushes, no small feat for a goalie his size.
Lastly, Kuemper did not default to backside pushes on all recoveries, seeming to have good awareness of how far out the puck was on rebounds, and taking the time when he had it to recover back to his skates while moving to his new save position (see photo sequence below) rather than rushing himself, rarely if ever appearing panicked after making an initial save but showing off athleticism when needed.
All of which bodes well for his future so long as he continues to learn when to apply each skill in game situations.
Given the Wild’s history of developing top stoppers under goaltending coach Bob Mason, the odds seem good.
~ Look for more on this season’s NHL goaltending debuts, including more from Kuemper and some insights into St. Louis prospect Jake Allen (left), who got his first NHL start on Wednesday, in the March edition of InGoal Magazine.