The Wild has endured a mumps outbreak in the locker room, a power play that looks sickly and the public admittance by a prized offseason acquisition that he racked up $1 million in gambling debt.
That’s an impressive list of oddball developments to start the season.
One thing trumps the mumps on the concern meter, and that’s the team’s goaltender situation. Specifically, what’s going on with Darcy Kuemper?
“I feel good,” he insisted.
The team is not so sure. Kuemper’s performance this season has been all over the map. He’s looked invincible, average and awful. Sometimes all in one game.
He allowed five goals in the third period of a meltdown loss to the New York Rangers. He allowed five goals on 18 shots in his most recent outing, which ended with him being pulled for the third time in four home starts.
Kuemper will watch Tuesday’s game against the Islanders from the bench, replaced by veteran Niklas Backstrom. Coach Mike Yeo used the word “deserving” multiple times in explaining why he’s starting Backstrom.
It didn’t take much effort to read between the lines.
Kuemper has to be better in goal for a veteran team built to win now.
“He’s a big part of our future so there’s times where you want to give him games and chances to respond,” Yeo said. “But at the same time, we’re making decisions based on other players and the team as well.”
Kuemper managed to smile when asked Monday if he needs a mental break and some time to clear his head.
“No, no,” he said. “Like I said, I feel good.”
Kuemper’s struggles haven’t reached panic mode yet, but that issue is disconcerting because nobody wants to see a repeat of last season’s goalie carousel. That’s not a recipe for sustained postseason success.
The opinion here remains the same as it did before the season: The Wild needs to stick with Kuemper to see if he can develop into a No. 1 goalie long term. His ceiling is higher than Backstrom’s, and even though Backstrom looks strong and fit now, his health remains a concern.
Kuemper’s lapses have become troubling, though. He’s had a few occasions where one bad goal snowballs into something much worse, which is weird because the book on Kuemper has been that he’s laid-back and unflappable.
Now he seems to unravel at times.
“The only game that I’d say really went awry was that New York game,” he said. “I think that kind of put some thoughts into peoples’ heads. So when two goals happen, then all of a sudden, it’s, ‘Oh no. It’s happening again.’ But really it’s just situational.”
Kuemper’s inconsistency doesn’t appear to stem from anything physical or technical. It’s purely mental, and that’s always a concern for a goalie, especially a young one.
People who play that position tend to march to their own beat anyway. The mental side of their job is difficult to quantify, but it sure seems as important as any other factor in determining success or failure.
“Even if you’re my age , you work every day just to be in the moment and not look behind you,” Backstrom said. “For a goalie, a lot of the game is physical, but it’s mentally, too. You can’t be afraid of letting in goals and making mistakes because it’s going to happen.”
This becomes a delicate situation for Yeo to navigate. Does he let Kuemper learn on the job and work through his inconsistencies? Or does he reduce his playing time and hope that works?
The organization has invested in Kuemper and wants him to become a long-term answer. The team has tried to fast-track his development by entrusting him with the No. 1 job.
Maybe that slows down a bit now. It’s not the worst idea for the Wild to lean on Backstrom more for the time being, and let Kuemper try to rediscover whatever it was that made him so good early in the season.
Kuemper seems to handle adversity in a positive manner. He generally responds well after a poor performance. He played inspired when the starting job was up for grabs.
Maybe he tends to lose focus when he becomes comfortable. Maybe he performs best when he’s on edge. Maybe being forced to sit and watch Backstrom play will be the thing that gets his attention and puts him back on track.
“I’ve been consistent at every level, and I know it will come here,” Kuemper said.
The Wild hopes that happens. The team needs to find out if this is merely youthful growing pains, or something worse.