While the Minnesota Wild did fall 2-1 to the Vancouver Canucks last night, Minnesota’s future in net looks as solid as the young man starting for the Wild in his NHL debut last night. Darcy Kuemper was great in his first career NHL game, stopping 28 of 30 shots and posting a .933 save percentage. The young goaltender’s play was so impressive, that he was named the third star of the game. Kuemper was obviously a little jittery playing in his first career NHL game, but Vancouver goaltender Roberto Luongo, in a classy move, skated over to the young Wild netminder in warm-ups, wishing him good luck and telling him to play his game. You can bet the respect Wild fans have for the Canucks netminder was kicked up a few notches after that.
Kuemper took one of the NHL’s best goaltenders words’ to heart, standing tall and playing his game. In fact, the one-time CHL Goaltender of the Year played a key role in keeping his team in the game last night. Though Minnesota lost, it was almost a victory in itself to keep the dangerous Sedin twins off the score sheet—you can contribute a lot of that to the Wild’s big 6’5” 207-pound rookie netminder. The kid is big, mobile and very athletic. He’s nearly unbeatable down low, and his shoulders are essentially level with the crossbar when he drops into the butterfly—which he does exceptionally well. With that in mind, the question asked by most Wild fans was why Matt Hackett wasn’t the one to receive the call-up. According to Wild GM Chuck Fletcher, it’s simple; Kuemper has been the best goaltender in the AHL in the last month. However, that’s not to say Hackett isn’t still in Minnesota’s plans.
Both Matt Hackett and Darcy Kuemper were drafted by Minnesota in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft in the 3rd and 6th rounds, respectively. The two goaltenders, oddly enough, share similar personalities with current Wild netminders Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding. Hackett is quiet, reserved and focused, letting his game do the talking, much like Backstrom. Kuemper, on the other hand, is much more good-natured and outgoing like Harding. Though there are distinct differences in their personalities, both goaltending prospects have their eyes set on the prize—the label of “Minnesota Wild No. 1 Franchise Netminder”.
To make matters even more interesting is the emergence of Minnesota’s 6th round pick in 2010, Johan Gustafsson, who has been one of the best, most consistent goaltenders in the entire Swedish Elite League where he plays for Lulea. Gustafsson was Sweden’s No. 1 goaltender during the 2012 World Junior Championships, when he backstopped his team to the gold medal via a 1-0 shutout win over Russia in overtime. With the uncertainty stemming from Harding’s medical issues, Minnesota will likely need to resign Backstrom this offseason and bring up one of Hackett or Kuemper to back him up. That leaves a spot for Gustafsson to come across the pond and get used to the North American game while manning the net down in Houston. Even with how good he is, it’s likely a long shot for Gustafsson to steal the franchise label from either Hackett or Kuemper at this point.
However, the awards and titles between the three goaltenders is staggering: OHL All Star (Hackett), 2x WHL All Star (Kuemper), WHL Best GAA (Kuemper), WHL Best Save Percentage (Kuemper), WHL Player of the Year (Kuemper), WHL Top Goaltender (Kuemper), CHL Goaltender of the Year (Kuemper), ECHL Goaltender of the Week (Kuemper), AHL Player of the Week (Kuemper), AHL Rookie of the Month (Kuemper), J18 Allsvenskan (South) Best GAA (Gustafsson), J18 Allsvenskan (South) Best Save Percentage (Gustafsson), TV-Pucken Best Goaltender (Gustafsson), U18 WJC Silver Medal (Gustafsson), Elitserien Rookie of the Year Nominee (Gustafsson), U20 WJC Gold Medal (Gustafsson) and European Trophy Champion (Gustafsson). While all three goaltenders would be coveted by any prospect pool lacking elite talent in net, the numbers may be a telling sign—and they’re leaning quite heavily towards Kuemper.
Even after losing last night, Kuemper was ecstatic over getting to start his first NHL game. That excitement is contagious, and also shows that young Darcy isn’t going to let a loss keep him down. He may not have the stoic, competitive edge of Matt Hackett, but he’s got a passion and an enthusiasm about playing in net that makes him really fun to watch. With a little more seasoning—a year or so more in Houston or some good time up as Minnesota’s No. 2—he’ll be more than ready to cement his spot in the Wild lineup for good. This hockey writer absolutely can’t wait.
Tomorrow, I will be taking a one-day writing break for personal reasons. It’s one of those days were spending time with the ones you love takes precedent over anything else. I encourage you to do so, as well.
Don’t fret, our good Mr. Scott Drain will have your game preview and wrap-up for tomorrow’s matchup with the division rival Colorado Avalanche. That being said, if anything major happens involving the team, you can be sure I will keep you informed. So, tomorrow, be sure to follow me on Twitter via either my personal handle (@dakota_case) or Gone Puck Wild’s (@FSGonePuckWild).
Also, if you absolutely need your hockey fix tomorrow, be sure to tune in live at 10am CT to “The Power Play” Hockey Talk Radio Show (@ThePowerPlayHTR), hosted by yours truly, which runs from 10-12 every Thursday morning.
Dakota W. Case
Editor, Gone Puck Wild