Inside the Wild locker room last season, Darcy Kuemper looked silly as he sat on a folding chair or undersized stall not designed for a 6-4 goaltender with oversized equipment.
It also seemed a little silly that a player in his sixth year with the same organization got that kind of treatment. But even though Kuemper was Devan Dubnyk’s backup, Kuemper and the club tried to show respect and class for the winningest goalie in franchise history by giving Niklas Backstrom, who didn’t play a single minute as the No. 3 goaltender, the comfy backup’s stall.
“It was not ideal,” Kuemper, with his trademark smile, said understatedly of last year’s awkwardness. “I don’t think anyone in that situation would say that they enjoyed it, but we made the best of it. Backy, being the professional that he was, he allowed me to get the shots that I needed in practice.
“We tried to find a happy medium and made the best of it. He never once complained to anyone about his situation. He kept it to himself. We all knew what he was going through, but he never would be the one to tell you.
“But I’m definitely looking forward to this year having my own net and my full-time stall. It’s nice to have a fresh start here.”
Kuemper will make his exhibition debut Thursday night in Winnipeg. At times this past offseason, the Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, native wondered if he’d get that fresh start “here.” His contract was expiring, and after playing only 21 games last season behind a goalie who was finishing up his first season on a six-year contract, Kuemper knew there was a great chance he’d be traded.
In fact, not only did Chuck Fletcher say publicly that it would “behoove” the Wild to look around and see if there was a deal that “would be good for both of us,” the Wild general manager told Kuemper the same thing in their end-of-season exit meeting.
Kuemper is 26, and Fletcher badly wanted to give him an opportunity to start elsewhere while also turning an asset into value before he could potentially leave for nothing as an unrestricted free agent next summer.
“I was good with either way,” Kuemper said of returning or being traded. “I love it here. I’ve been with a lot of these guys for six years now. That’s a long time. A lot of my best friends are on this team, so I was more than happy to come back. It would have been mixed emotions either way.
“Chuck told me I could be moved at the draft, and if not, he’d be more than happy to have me back. And I told him the same thing.”
Fletcher was unable to trade Kuemper, so the goalie re-signed for one year.
After winning only six games last season despite a decent .915 save percentage and 2.43 goals-against average — Kuemper had a tendency to give up a late goal in tight games — this season provides a chance for Kuemper to prove to the NHL he can be a No. 1 goalie before free agency.
He doesn’t want to worry about that yet.
“I just want to help this group win,” Kuemper said. “I think it’s going to be a great year and hopefully one of our best we’ve had.”
For that to happen, the Wild will need Kuemper to win games. Barring injury, coach Bruce Boudreau likes to start his No. 1 goalie roughly 55 times. That’ll leave decent action for Kuemper, whom the Wild wants to push Dubnyk.
“It’ll be good for everyone,” Kuemper said. “It’ll give him fresher legs and allow him to be more rested and allow me to be in more of a rhythm. There’s nothing tougher than sitting on the bench for a month and then going in there and playing a game. It’s hard to feel good that way.
“I feel in great shape and good on the ice. I’m looking forward to getting game action [Thursday] and then building off that.”