GLENDALE, ARIZ. – Once upon a time, Darcy Kuemper came through so often for the Wild, fans nicknamed him “The Kuemperor.”
When the Wild faces the Arizona Coyotes on Saturday, the Wild’s one-time “goalie of the future” will try to bandage his shattered confidence and pride after awkwardly being shoved to the back burner these past few weeks. He will try to win a game in what possibly could be his final start with the organization.
On the line: Breaking the franchise record for wins and points after the Wild tied the marks of 48 and 104, respectively, Thursday at Colorado.
Also on the line: Kuemper’s future — both immediate, as the Wild decides whether to go with him or Alex Stalock as its backup in the playoffs; and long-term, as the pending free agent will likely need to find a job elsewhere this offseason after a tough season.
“Darcy’s a proud guy, and this whole situation has been disappointing and not fun. We don’t need to sugarcoat anything: It’s not a nice situation for anybody to be in,” No. 1 goalie Devan Dubnyk said. “I’ve talked to him about it. I said, ‘Take it from me: Anything that happens from now on will depend on how you respond to this from now until whatever happens in your future.’ ”
Dubnyk is referring to the month of March when Kuemper, who lost the confidence of his coach and the franchise that drafted him eight years ago, didn’t play two games he was “penciled” to start, then was scratched from three consecutive games while Stalock was recalled to start and back up.
“It was hard because you want to play as much as you can,” said Kuemper, 26, pulled in two starts since Feb. 28 and mock-cheered during a tough outing against Vancouver in his last appearance. “Seeing a game or two that you could have played and then all of sudden you’re watching is tough.
“But it’s not my decision, so I tried not to get too caught up in it and just worried about keep doing things the right way and working hard in practice.”
Dubnyk has lived this: “I told him, ‘I know how it feels.’ ”
The goalie life
In 2013-14, with the Oilers, Dubnyk watched Edmonton bring in Richard Bachman, then Ilya Bryzgalov to compete with him. He was traded to Nashville, had two rocky starts in two months and was eventually shipped to Montreal, where he was buried in the minors.
Dubnyk got lucky. The Coyotes gave him a flier to be their backup. He resurrected his career and was dealt to Minnesota.
“What happens to you — if he’s here, if he’s somewhere else, what role he’s in — all depends on how he reacts to this tough situation,” Dubnyk said. “[Stalock] came up and played great, and it makes it a little more stressful because Darcy’s a great goalie and obviously feels he could do the job, too, so [Saturday] is a good opportunity for Darcy to get in there and play a good game.
“This stinks, but I told him that a lot of stuff happens in a career, and it all depends now how he takes it and responds to it.”
Because of Kuemper’s rocky play this season (career-worst 3.26 goals-against average and .900 save percentage), it’s easy to forget there was a time where the future looked bright for the former Western Hockey League Player of the Year and Canadian Hockey League Goalie of the Year.
In 2013-14, Kuemper was 11-2-2 with a .934 save percentage during one second-half stretch before getting hurt. Bryzgalov finished the season and started the playoffs before poor performance thrust Kuemper into starts down 2-0 and 3-2 in a first-round series against Colorado.
Kuemper won three home starts before getting hurt in Game 7.
In 2014-15, after a contract dispute, Kuemper started the season with consecutive shutouts and a 6-2 record.
But in November, December and January, Kuemper and Niklas Backstrom struggled at the same time, the Wild had the worst save percentage in the NHL and the Wild acquired Dubnyk.
Kuemper played 21 games last season and 17 games this season, which is why goalie coach Bob Mason believes Kuemper’s game has taken a turn for the worse. He often melts down in games when adversity strikes. One goal against can become two and three quickly.
“He’s very light in games played, so he gets very little traction,” Mason said. “There are tough moments in games where he hasn’t gotten the minutes to get through a lot of those. Being a goaltender, there are tight minutes where a span of minutes can be critical. The more you go through them, the more you get used to them.
“I like to see guys get 40 games in a year to develop. What’s he gotten? Twenty last year, 20 again this year? Not a lot of games. He’s stuck behind Duby. I think that plays big time into it.”
Mason said it’s imperative Kuemper doesn’t worry about the playoffs or next season during Saturday’s start. He noted that things can change in a heartbeat. He remembered 2013 when Kuemper was getting ready for what the team hoped would be a long playoff run in Houston.
Backstrom got hurt in warmups before Game 1 against Chicago. Kuemper was recalled to back up Josh Harding and suddenly was playing in the series because Harding was injured.
Still, the Wild plans to carry three goalies in the playoffs, so Stalock will likely be recalled in the next few days.
Asked if he feels he is playing for his job as playoff backup Saturday, Kuemper paused.
“I’m just focusing on going out there and playing,” he said. “I’ve been working hard off the ice, on the ice. I feel my body is in good shape right now and feel my game’s in a good place. I’m just looking forward to the start.”