Five minutes left in warm-ups, Minnesota Wild rookie netminder Darcy Kuemper found out he would make his second NHL start. Like Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Justin Falk—who had been scratched from the lineup earlier because of illness—Wild starting goaltender Niklas Backstrom suddenly felt under the weather with the flu and spent much of the game going back and forth between the locker room and the bench. However, Kuemper was up to the task in his home debut, stopping 29 of 31 shots and posting a .935 save percentage en route to a 3-2 regulation win—the first of what will likely be many in his NHL career.
Could Kuemper stay up in Minnesota for good—at least—for the rest of this season? With the uncertainty surrounding Josh Harding’s situation, it’s certainly possible. However, Matt Hackett is also a very legitimate heir to the Wild goaltending throne, as well. Minnesota could quite possibly decide to send Kuemper back down—filled with confidence stemming from his NHL success—and call up Hackett to give him another shot. With it being a lockout-shortened season, however, I find it less likely that they would mess with the sudden success they’ve found in net.
With Minnesota’s season already a quarter of the way over, and with such a tight playoff race in the Western Conference, there’s no time to allow for experimentation to determine what does or doesn’t work for the team. Though Chicago and Anaheim have distanced themselves from the pack at 27 points and 23 points, respectively, the remaining 13 teams are all within nine points of each other. While Minnesota is technically tied With Phoenix and Detroit for the 8th and final playoff spot in the West, the tie-breaker places the Wild at 10th—just six points ahead of last place Columbus. It wouldn’t take much for Minnesota to drop out of playoff contention completely.
With that in mind, it may be in Minnesota’s best interest to keep their 6’5” 207-pound goaltending giant up for the time being. Matt Hackett is more than able to man Houston’s crease as the No. 1—which he already is—and the Aeros have John Curry and Cody Reichard to back him up. Curry has gone back and forth between the Aeros and the Wild’s ECHL affiliate—the Orlando Solar Bears—throughout the season, so that’s no surprise. What is interesting, on the other hand, is the signing of Reichard to a PTO. It could mean that the Wild’s No. 1 affiliate has been given news to be prepared to play without Kuemper for a while.
Keeping Kuemper up would certainly be the smart thing for Minnesota to do, considering there’s just no real time table for Harding’s return to the Wild lineup. Minnesota Wild GM Chuck Fletcher knew what he was doing when he made the call-up, calling Kuemper the best goaltender in the AHL during the past month. The kid has been one of the very best at his position at every level of play he has faced—maybe, just maybe, it’s time to give the kid a chance to prove he is the long-term solution for Minnesota in net. And, if he leads Minnesota all the way to the playoffs, so be it.
By the way, Minnesota Wild Assistant GM Brent Flahr has indicated that Minnesota will not only be looking to draft size and the best player available, they’ll also likely draft another goaltender in the later rounds. You know what that means—another quality pick by a franchise that’s future just keeps looking better and better.