Would The Wild Miss Darcy Kuemper?

On the eve of Wild training camp, all is not well between the pipes at Xcel Energy Center.

Yesterday’s news of Josh Harding‘s (non-hockey) apparently serious ankle injury has sent the Wild Goaltending situation from confusing to borderline panic amongst some fans, and given Darcy Kuemper‘s agent a whole lot of leverage, in the midst of some tense contract negotiations with the Minnesota Wild brass. Kuemper is the third and youngest head of the Wild goaltending Cerberus going into the season, and though he’s a Restricted Free Agent, he’s yet to sign with the team, desiring a contract that will ensure him a spot on the NHL roster for the full season, while the Wild balk at having all three goalies rostered.  Meanwhile, the eldest Wild netminder is Niklas Backstrom, and now he stands alone in St. Paul as the only proven NHL goalie who is healthy and under contract, much to the chagrin of many Wild fans.

Even with the injury to Harding, Kuemper’s consideration of playing in the KHL has to be fairly realistic, since the money there is good(better than the NHL at times), and the promise of top level playing time is what Kuemper really wants, according to his agent. The deal the Wild are offering now is two years, but a two-way contract for the first year, meaning they can send him down to the Iowa Wild at any time without waivers, as long as he has yet to play 14 games in the NHL this season. Kuemper and his agent have countered with a one year, one way deal, essentially wanting a guarantee on a full NHL season for Kuemper, with perhaps a handsome payday next summer after the deal expires.

This begs the question- If they let him walk, would the Wild miss Darcy Kuemper?

At this point, it’s easy to say yes, considering Josh Harding didn’t even make it to Oktoberfest season before getting hurt, not to mention the NHL regular season, and last year’s campaign from Niklas Backstrom, injuries or not, left a lot to be desired. Kuemper has been heralded as the future of Wild goaltending, with Backstrom at age 36 and Harding’s diagnosis of MS a few years ago and expiring contract this year. Last season Kuemper was called up a couple of times with disastrous results early on, but was called up for good in January and went on a tear, posting a 2.19 Goals Allowed Average in the New Year, helping the Wild into the playoffs, and played a vast majority of the Wild’s victorious seven game series with Colorado, until he was hurt late in Game 7.

On the other hand, one could make the argument that the Wild will be fine without him. It’s easy to write off his half season performance as just that- a half a season from a rookie, meaning he hasn’t proven anything in the NHL yet. Also, many would expect a better year from a finally healthy Backstrom if called upon, and there’s even more sentiment that we should resign the ever-quotable Ilya Bryzgalov, who has expressed previously that he’d like to return after a brief cameo here last spring, or another proven veteran goalie currently without a job.

Where will Darcy Kuemper start the season?

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After some stat digging on Hockey-Reference.com, here’s what I’ve found. Kuemper had a good run last season, but was still just 27th in the league in Save Percentage, amongst qualifying goaltenders(Harding was first), and 23rd in Goals Allowed Average(Harding also first). These ratio-driven stats don’t punish or award him for an abbreviated season last year, and neither do some next level stats I found. Goals Saved Above Average is a composite stat that compares goalies to their peers, and measures how many goals more or less they would have allowed, had the “average” goalie faced the same number of shots, Kuemper scored a 0.49 goals, which over half a season, is rather negligible. Another stat, Goals Allowed Percentage also compares to the rest of the league in how many goals were allowed, with 100 being average, lower scores are better. Kuemper scored a 99.

Nov 23, 2013; Winnipeg, Manitoba, CAN; Winnipeg Jets forward Bryan Little (18) scores during shootout on Minnesota Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom (32) at MTS Centre. Wild win 3-2. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports Dec 14, 2013; Denver, CO, USA; Minnesota Wild goalie Josh Harding (37) waits for a shot from Colorado Avalanche center Matt Duchene (9) in a shootout period at Pepsi Center. The Minnesota Wild defeated the Colorado Avalanche in a shootout 2-1. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Now, looking at Niklas Backstrom’s numbers in the same categories last season are downright ugly, but you would hope that with full health, he could regain some old form despite being 36. However, in the 2012-13 season, Backstrom clocked in at -3.58 GSAA and 104 GA% , which was perhaps a little foreshadowing to the season that would follow. Harding obviously earned high marks last season in his short stint, at a whopping 13.45 GSAA and 77 GA%, but I think expecting any kind of full season effort, especially now, is foolish at best. Also, Bryzgalov checked in at -3.40 and 106, respectively last season.

So where are the Wild without Kuemper? The stats may argue they’re losing an unproven, average goaltender, who is a second fiddle to one of the top goalies in the league in Harding. Meanwhile, logic dictates that Harding’s MS and Kuemper’s youth prove to be phenomenal reasons to resign the Saskatoon native, in light of Backstrom’s obvious production decline, not to mention Harding’s recent injury. I think what can be learned from this (exercise in futility) is that if he walks, we’ve only lost an average goaltender, and not someone borderline elite, so there’s no reason to get bent out of shape about it. However, if he stays, this is a good thing, as he is a serviceable NHL goalie, and a very much-needed insurance policy to a stricken Josh Harding, because Niklas Backstrom is obviously past his prime. Only time will tell if the Wild cave after Harding’s injury, and the repercussions if they don’t.