When the Wild’s preseason schedule was announced earlier this year, Darcy Kuemper immediately focused on one date: Sept. 26, when his team would play Edmonton in his hometown of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
“I’ve been looking forward to this ever since I heard about it,’’ the goaltender said of Saturday’s game. “Right away, I was bragging to the guys about who would be the lucky ones that would get to go to Saskatoon and play.’’
Kuemper will be one of them, returning to an arena where he attended games as a kid and played as a teenager. In a lineup loaded with youngsters looking to prove their value, he will be aiming to do the same in his second start of the preseason. While Kuemper revisits the past at SaskTel Centre, he also will be trying to distance himself from more recent history, moving on from a season that unexpectedly unraveled.
He began the season as the starter and earned three shutouts in his first four games. Kuemper watched most of the final few months from the bench, after a stretch of poor play and misfortunes that included a lower-body injury and a bout of food poisoning.
He appears destined to begin this season in the same place, as a backup to ironman starter Devan Dubnyk. But Kuemper — one of the sunniest guys on the Wild roster — hasn’t allowed those trials to dim his optimism.
“There were definitely a lot of ups and downs,’’ Kuemper said after Friday’s practice at Xcel Energy Center. “I think that’s to be expected your first full year, but mine was on a more extreme scale, to go from being the starter to not playing for that many months.
“Looking back on it, there were lots of things I learned. I think I’m going to be a better player because of it. I just need to keep working on my game.’’
Coach Mike Yeo said he is happy with how Kuemper has performed through the first eight days of training camp. But veteran Niklas Backstrom has had an outstanding camp. Kuemper allowed three goals on 19 shots as Buffalo defeated the Wild 3-2 in its preseason opener, while Backstrom stopped all 28 shots he faced in a shutout of Winnipeg.
Dubnyk thrived under a heavy workload last season, starting 38 games in a row after he was acquired in January. But Yeo stressed that the Wild needs a backup who can give Dubnyk some rest, win games and provide enough challenge to keep Dubnyk sharp.
Kuemper, 25, won the starting job in camp last season and surrendered only two goals in his first four games. As he rolled to six victories in his first eight starts, he recorded three shutouts and a goals-against average of 1.62. But his play began to slip in early November, starting a period in which Kuemper was frequently pulled and saw his save percentage plummet.
Due to his struggles and a stint on injured reserve, Kuemper did not start an NHL game between Jan. 6 and April 9, playing only 37 minutes, 35 seconds for the Wild during that span. He saw only 139 minutes of NHL action over the final four months of the season, and Yeo said Kuemper must get more playing time to rediscover his form.
“The thing with [Kuemper], and we all know this, he just needs to play,’’ Yeo said. “He needs to get into the game situations and get a little more comfortable with reading the plays and reacting. Getting him in there [Saturday], I think we’ll see him continue to get along. Similar to [the expectations for other players], I want to see his next game be better than his last game.’’
So does Kuemper. He anticipates more than 50 relatives and friends will be at the game in Saskatoon, and he would like nothing more than to give them and his team a good show.
“Every day, I’m feeling better,’’ he said. “I just want to give the team a chance to win every time I’m in there.’’
• Forward Justin Fontaine, who took a knee to the leg in Thursday’s 5-2 victory at Columbus, has a charley horse and did not practice. Forward Ryan Carter also sat out but could play Sunday vs. Winnipeg. Forward Jordan Schroeder (groin) practiced and is on the roster for Saturday’s game.
• Kuemper will be joined by only five other Wild veterans on Saturday’s roster, which is likely the last chance for young players to make an impression. Yeo said “the odds are pretty good’’ that significant cuts will be made Sunday, and the roster for the final two preseason games will mirror the lineup that will start the season Oct. 8 in Colorado.