After stellar season, Darcy Kuemper poised for Team Canada debut
A native of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, 27-year-old Darcy Kuemper comes from a nation of goaltending powerhouses.
Although the gap is closing, the percentage of NHL goaltenders that have come from Canada remains significant. Of the 95 goaltenders who ended up appearing on an NHL roster during the 2017-18 season, 39 are Canadian-born; with those kinds of numbers, the national team remains saturated with talent year after year.
For the first time, though, Kuemper has risen to the top of the pack.
It was confirmed on Thursday afternoon that Kuemper, who posted a .920 save percentage in 29 collective games between the Los Angeles Kings and Arizona Coyotes, will join Team Canada at the upcoming World Championships in Denmark this May.
Drafted 161st overall by the Minnesota Wild in 2009, Kuemper was expected to be the heir apparent to Niklas Backstrom’s throne for the Central Division club before Devan Dubnyk arrived on the scene.
Standing at 6-foot-5, the lanky WHL alumnus had plenty of good games – enough to keep him in the NHL, even if he was ultimately shifted down the depth chart for fellow netminding giant Dubnyk when he was just 24.
His numbers never quite took the league by storm, though. Through five years with Minnesota, he averaged just a .910 save percentage in all situations, struggling on special teams (both in power-play and short-handed situations) and lacking the kind of consistency teams want to see in a starter.
Over this past summer, though, he made the move to the Los Angeles Kings as a free agent, inking a one-year deal to replace Jeff Zatkoff as Jonathan Quick’s backup.
While in California, his situational training under Bill Ranford elevated his game enough that he quickly became one of the most successful backups of the season.
In 19 games with LA, Kuemper posted three shutouts, a .932 save percentage, and a .600 quality starts percentage.
Part of that, he told InGoal following the end of the regular season, was how Ranford approached his game play on the posts and when managing his depth.
“There was a lot of attention to detail,” he described. “You know, you had to put in your time. He wanted me paddle-down on the post…. so my post play changed a lot.”
He started using reverse-VH a lot more, using the alternate angle and the paddle-down positioning to improve his coverage on the posts. Ranford found little issue with Kuemper’s movement – certainly never a weak area of his game, particularly for his size – but helped him realize how using the RVH transition could only further enhance those assets that were already there.
The hard work ‘made it fun to come to the rink every day’, he admitted.
His numbers took a bit of a hit when he arrived in Arizona, although small sample size and a mid-season transition likely accounted for at least some of the mediocre final results. He insists that the working relationship he quickly developed with Coyotes goaltending coach Corey Schwab made the move a little bit easier, and should help him continue to integrate what he learned from Ranford this coming season with his new 2-year deal in the desert.
“It wasn’t too crazy to adjust here,” he explained, referring to the shift between Arizona and Los Angeles.
Arizona shifted at the onset of the 2017-18 season to a drastically new defensive system, moving far away from the goaltender-controlled defensive zone play so familiar to Coyotes fans during Mike Smith’s tenure.
Instead of relying on the goaltender to go behind the net and play the puck, Arizona preached retrieval by the defenders, encouraging Antti Raanta and then Kuemper to stay in their crease and wait for the shots.
That, Kuemper explained, took a little bit to get used to, but not quite as much as one might expect – and with video sessions alongside Schwab to look at how he was applying techniques in certain situations with the defensive corps, he was able to mold his game to the system that yielded Raanta near-Vezina campaign over 82 games.
“When I first came, he was really good about asking how I wanted to play in certain situations. Still, when we’re doing video for games, he’s asking me what I’m seeing, why I played that way… this way he kind of learns my game and my thinking out there, and that’s made the transition easy, because we’re kind of on the same page.”
He’s expected to head back to Saskatchewan to work with the same goaltending school he’s been using for years, where he’ll continue his off-season instruction with JB Performance Training and coach Josh Saulnier.
Before he does, though, he’ll take everything he’s learned so far to Europe, getting a chance to continue showing just how much he’s picked up this season.