Darcy Kuemper, who backstopped the Wild to victories in Games 3, 4 and 6 in last season’s playoffs against the Colorado Avalanche when the Wild trailed in the series, will make his first career opening-night start Thursday when the Wild plays host to the Avs.
Coach Mike Yeo made the pronouncement after Wednesday’s practice.
Yeo said it’s “to be determined” whether veteran Niklas Backstrom, who at 36 is 12 years older than Kuemper, starts Saturday’s game at Colorado.
“But we don’t want him sitting around for a long time,” Yeo said. “Based on his history in that building, based on the fact that we play two games and don’t play for a week after that, I would say in a perfect world, that’s what we would do.
“But we don’t always operate that way either.”
Backstrom, 24-7-3 against the Avs, is 11-3-1 at the Pepsi Center with a 2.04 goals-against average and .937 save percentage. That’s his most wins in any opponent rink.
Kuemper, who gave up three goals in three home starts against the Avs in the playoffs, went 2-0 in the preseason in three appearances with a 2.20 GAA and .915 save percentage.
“You’ve got to be competing for starts, but at the same time you’ve be supportive of each other and putting the team above the situation,” Kuemper said. “Backy’s a great mentor for me. He’s awesome to me, and I’ve learned lots from him. He’s a great guy, and I’ve been learning from him since I was drafted here [in 2009].”
Backstrom went 1-1 in three preseason games with a 2.42 GAA and .908 save percentage. He is coming off season-ending abdominal surgery and hip surgery, and one wonders if the decision to start Kuemper Thursday is a sign the Wild plans to lessen Backstrom’s workload early in the season.
“Coming into camp, I wasn’t really sure what was going to happen [healthwise], how I was going to feel,” Backstrom said. “Physically, it was a pretty tough camp, but I’ve been happy how the body has been improving and feeling better. It’s close to normal, but not there. I don’t know if I want to say normal because I want to feel better than I felt before. That’s the goal, and it’s not there.”
The Wild practiced shootouts Wednesday, and Yeo has plenty of weapons.
“Too bad it’s not five rounds,” Backstrom said.
The NHL shootout goes three rounds unless it’s tied, and Yeo indicated Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu and Jason Pominville will continue to be his first three.
Among active players, Parise is tied for first in the NHL with 37 shootout goals and Koivu is second with 36. Pominville is tied for 25th with 21.
Newly-acquired Thomas Vanek is tied for 20th with 22, and the Wild has several skilled youngsters who could step in.
“Sometimes get yourself in trouble when you overthink things,” Yeo said.
Matt Dumba and fellow rookie Christian Folin will be paired together Thursday.
Yeo said Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin will see shifts with the inexperienced defensemen, but “I’m not afraid of putting those guys out there right now.”
“I don’t expect them to play perfect games, and we shouldn’t panic if they make one or two mistakes,” he said. “We have to give them a chance to develop and to grow. We have confidence that they’re going to play a solid, reliable game, but I also don’t expect it to be perfect.”
• Defenseman Keith Ballard was expected to be scratched anyway, but he missed practice Wednesday after being hit by a puck in the chest the day before.
• Right winger Justin Fontaine (glute) practiced all week but won’t play Thursday.
• The Iowa Wild of the AHL named Stephane Veilleux captain and Brett Sutter and Justin Falk alternate captains.