The puck hit the ice on Thursday October 9, 2014 at the Excel Energy Center and the season began for the Minnesota Wild. The Wild hosted the Colorado Avalanche, the team the Wild knocked out of the Stanley Cup playoffs last season. Darcy Kuemper was chosen over veteran Niklas Backstrom by Coach Mike Yeo to man between the pipes. At the age of 24, he is the youngest goalie to play on the home opener for the Minnesota Wild. Kuemper had just a few weeks before signed a new two-year contract with the Wild after it was announced that Josh Harding suffered a broken foot in an off-ice incident and was out indefinitely.
Yeo, choosing Kuemper over Backstrom was a bold move. After all Backstrom has been the Wild’s number one goalie since they traded Manny Fernandez in 2007. Both Backstrom and Kuemper performed well during training camp and each had something to prove. Backstrom, 36 was eager to show that he was healthy and still a contender as a starter in the National Hockey League. He had not played a game since January 30th and had undergone core muscle surgery in February. Kuemper wanted to show that his performance last year was something to build on. In pre-season he went 2-0 with a 2.20 GAA and .915 SV% in three appearances. Backstrom made three pre-season appearances, going 1-1 with a 2.42 GAA and .908 SV%.
Kuemper told Lighthouse reporter Mike Doyle: “I tried to just do my best to show the coaches that they could trust me, players as well. It’s a long season, but you’ve got to take it one day at a time.”
Kuemper hit the ice with what was described as a confident swagger. He played solid in the season opener at the Xcel Energy Center and earned the 3rd shut out of his career. It could be argued that he was not challenged with the 16 saves in the 5-0 win over the Avalanche. Coach Yeo said that he would not pull a player that had a shutout and true to his word, 2 days later, Kuemper was the netkeeper in the Colorado home opener. The Avalanche came out hard and Kuemper answered any critics by earning his 4th shutout with 30 saves. For his efforts, Kuemper was named Second Star of the Week in the NHL.
Hoping the five day break did not cool the hot hand, Kuemper was tapped to mind the net in the game against the Anaheim Ducks. It was looking like Kuemper was on his way to another shutout but early in the 3rd period all that came to an end with a score from Andrew Cogliano. Kuemper did set the individual record for longest shutout streak to start the season at 163:46. The “youngster” bested the previous high, 157:44, ironically set by Niklas Backstrom. The Wild eventually lost to the Ducks 2-1.
At the end of the winning streak, Coach Yeo chose to put Niklas Backstrom on the ice and between the pipes. Backstrom’s first game of season was against the reigning Stanley Cup Champions, the Los Angeles Kings. Backstrom looked good in his return. He moved well. He stopped 14 of the 16 shots. The Wild fell 2-1.
The question of who will be the number one goaltender for Minnesota still needs to be determined. Backstrom offers experience. Kuemper on the other hand is out to prove himself and seems to generating a lot of attention.
On October 20th, Pro Hockey Talk NBC Sports named their top 5 Goalies. Kuemper was at the top of the list with .972 saves on goal above Jonathan Quick, Kings .951 / Frederik Anderson, Ducks .950 / Jonas Hiller, Flames .942 / Craig Anderson, Senators .939. Mind you there is a lot of season left.
October 23, Kuemper logged another shutout at home against the Arizona Coyotes, stopping 26 pucks, bringing his total of stopped pucks so far this season to 98 out of 100. At 6’5”, 204 pounds, he fills up the net. He’s calm, confident and smart in how he plays. Where some goalies may get cocky about their streak of shutouts, Kuemper is quick to acknowledge that it is the guys in front of him that makes it happen. The defense keeps the lanes open so he can view what is coming at him.
Looking at the evidence thus far into the season- his saves, shutouts, and stellar talent- it looks like Kuemper is the Wild’s number one goalie.