After a 28-win season for Red Deer in 2009-10, the Wild returned Kuemper for another season, over-age at 20.
“It was very tough news,” Kuemper said. “Obviously, everyone wants to turn pro as soon as they can.”
It was the best thing that could have happened.
“That’s when he really found himself,” said former Red Deer teammate Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the 2011 No. 1 overall pick who might face Kuemper on Thursday with the Oilers.
Kuemper went 45-12-5 with a 1.86 goals-against average and .933 save percentage. He was Western Hockey League Player of the Year and Canadian Hockey League Goalie of the Year.
“I ended up winning a bunch of awards, but it was more the process of learning to be the go-to guy,” Kuemper said. “[If the Wild signed me], I probably would’ve felt my way through my first year pro. But instead I opened up a whole lot of eyes, showing myself and a lot of other people what I was capable of.”
Kuemper turned pro for the 2011-12 season, platooning with Hackett in Houston of the American Hockey League. To keep his development from stalling, Kuemper played games in the lower-level ECHL sporadically for two seasons.
“That was another tough thing to swallow,” Kuemper said. “The East Coast isn’t where you want to be.”
Getting his shot
It became clear at some point the Wild would parlay Hackett or Kuemper in a trade for immediate help. That day came April 3, 2013, when Hackett was included in a package to get Buffalo Sabres captain Jason Pominville. That morning, Kuemper, in Houston, was told to pack his bag and hustle to the airport. He wasn’t told where he was going. He knew it was the NHL’s trade deadline.
“It was a lot of unknown,” Kuemper said. “I didn’t know what to bring. Just tried to stay calm. There’s nothing that you can do. It’s out of your control.”
After hanging out at the drop-off area, Kuemper finally got a call to “come to San Jose. You’re backing up tonight” for the Wild.
Hackett has struggled for the Sabres’ AHL team in Rochester, N.Y.
The 6-5 Kuemper, with Josh Harding sidelined indefinitely and Niklas Backstrom laboring through injuries, is 8-2-2 in his past 13 Wild starts with a 2.18 goals-against average and .929 save percentage.
“What set Darcy apart, he’s got great size, but he’s also got great athleticism,” Fletcher said. “Look at the way he catches the puck, the way he skates, the way he plays the puck. He brings a lot of strengths to his game that not every goaltender has.”
Kuemper had poor outings in Toronto and Montreal to start this season, and some questioned whether the Wild traded the wrong goalie. But he went to Iowa (the Wild moved its top affiliate from Houston to Des Moines this season) and got back to basics. It translated when he got another shot with the Wild, starting with a 39-save victory in Los Angeles on Jan. 7.
Up to the challenge
There have been tense moments this season.