The Colorado Avalanche captured lightning in a bottle when they traded for goalkeeper Phillip Grubauer three summers ago. Although lightning rarely hits the same spot twice, the Avs hope they can bottle it up a few times.
In this off-season, Grubauer went into the free agency and signed on July 28th with the Seattle Kraken expansion. General Manager Joe Sakic wasted no time replacing him and switched to Darcy Kuemper later that afternoon. Sakic acquired the 31-year-old goalkeeper from the Arizona Coyotes for a pair of draft picks and Conor Timmins.
The career statistics of Kuemper and Grubauer are incredibly similar. Both started their careers as backups, and both have played in the NHL for nine seasons. Kuemper has logged 242 games and Grubauer 214. Grubauer has an average of 2.34 goals (GAA) and a savings rate of 0.920 (SV%), while Kuemper is just behind with 2.42 and 0.917 respectively. With Colorado in win-now mode, the real question is whether Kuemper can step in and do as well as Grubauer in the last two seasons.
What does Kuemper do well?
Kuemper has spent most of his career as a backup or even in a split with another Netminder. After drafted by the Minnesota Wild in 2009, he supported Devan Dubnyk for a handful of seasons before signing with the Los Angeles Kings. He only held 19 games with the Kings in 2017-18 before being dealt to the Coyotes. He was the starter in 2018-19 before sharing the next two seasons with Antti Raanta and Adin Hill.
Arizona Coyotes Darcy Kuemper returns a goal as Sharks center Joe Pavelski and Coyotes defenders Jordan Oesterle and Niklas Hjalmarsson watch. (AP Photo / Ross D. Franklin)
Kuemper has been remarkably consistent and has proven that he can handle a large workload. In 2018/19 he started 55 games. He’s had 20 shutouts in his career, five of which came this season when he finished fifth in the Vezina Trophy voting. Last season he was very good for a team that wasn’t. He only allowed four times more than three goals in 28 games and suffered two defeats when he gave up just one goal.
Related: Minnesota Wild Draft Revisited – 2009
Offensive support will not be an issue with the Avalanche, who led the NHL last season with 197 goals and only failed twice – within eight days in February against Marc-Andre Fleury and the Vegas Golden Knights.
It’s a similar chorus, but Colorado needs Kuemper to stay healthy because goalkeeping depth was a huge weakness last season. He’s been pretty healthy throughout his career but missed out on time a few times during last season’s tight schedule.
Consistency was key for Grubauer in Colorado
Grubauer was perhaps the most important player for the Avalanche last season, out of sheer necessity. Injuries and lack of depth in the goalkeeping position forced him to play almost every day. He played 40 of the 56 regular season games in Colorado and scored 30 wins.
The regular 2020/21 season was no easy task for the Avs. They had two COVID shutdowns that forced a tight schedule in an even tighter space. From February 20th to April 14th they played 30 games. That’s more than half of their schedule in just 54 days. Grubauer appeared in 23 of these games with a 17-5-1 record, a 1.92 GAA and a 0.912 SV%.
Goalkeeper Philipp Grubauer with the Colorado Avalanche (AP Photo / David Zalubowski)
Grubauer didn’t spend the 2020/21 season riding the wave of an energetic offensive team in front of him. He led the NHL in shutouts with seven (at the same time as Semyon Varlamov of the New York Islanders), finished second in GAA with 1.95 and was seventh in SV% with 0.923. Colorado’s offensive pressure resulted in some quieter nights for Grubauer – five of his shutouts required 21 saves or fewer – but those two things are not mutually exclusive. His reliability was a big part of why the offense was so effective.
He was amazing when he went to the playoffs. For the last three months of the season, Grubauer had a 20-4-1 record with an incredible 0.66 GAA and 0.922 SV%. This consistency made him only the third Vezina Trophy finalist in avalanche history (Patrick Roy 1997 and 2002; Varlamov 2014). If Kuemper is to keep the Avalanche on the shortlist of Stanley Cup contenders, he has to be that consistent.
What the Avs need From Kuemper to Contend
Many of the Avalanche believers were stunned when Grubauer left, but Kuemper was essentially the same goalkeeper. The difference is that Kuemper faced a much worse team in Arizona. During the three seasons he was a starter for the Coyotes, he had a 53-42-13 record with 0.922 SV% and 2.35 GAA. That compares well with Grubauer, who achieved 66-30-10 with 0.918 SV% and 2.38 GAA in the same seasons.
Kuemper has only made 18 playoff appearances in his career, and a third of those were in one of only two playoff series he has won; he played six competitions during the Wild’s seven-game first-round series win over the Avalanche in 2014. But he appears to be a grizzled postseason veteran compared to Grubauer’s arrival in Colorado. Before joining the team, Grubauer only had four playoff appearances despite winning the Stanley Cup with Washington Capitals in 2018.
Darcy Kuemper with the Arizona Coyotes (Jess Starr / The Hockey Writers)
Playoff experience will be the biggest question mark, but at least Kuemer has a few wins under his belt, and it’s not that this squad has had a lot of successes in the postseason as well. The Avalanche have not made it through the second round since the 2009/10 season. That’s an eternity when you consider that Craig Anderson was the main goalkeeper for that team and Chris Stewart led the team in goals. Serious.
But since question marks fly before the puck has fallen in the regular season – backup Pavel Francouz is already injured in what is perhaps the least surprising development of the previous season – Kuemper’s health and availability are in the foreground. He has the guns before him, but he needs to stay healthy, be consistent, and live up to expectations. Some of these are beyond his control, but most of them are left to Kuemper.
Lifelong storyteller and seasoned hockey reporter who has covered everything from great juniors to the NHL. Worked for various newspapers in Minnesota and North Dakota and now reported on the Colorado Avalanche for THW.