Avalanche Have Tough Decision in Net With Francouz Back

The offseason acquisition of Darcy Kuemper from the Arizona Coyotes signaled that a new leading man had entered the Colorado Avalanche crease after the departure of Vezina Trophy finalist Philipp Grubauer. Under the searing floodlights cast upon the presumed Stanley Cup favorites, Kuemper stumbled to start the season and appeared unsettled as he acclimatized to a new system of play behind the Avalanche frontmen. Unfortunately for Kuemper, Pavel Francouz – the oft-injured backup – made his first NHL appearance in nearly two years in mid-December, and he looks poised to challenge for the starting role.

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The Avalanche have a worryingly slim margin of error in regards to their competitive timeline and an impending salary cap timebomb in Nathan MacKinnon’s next contract, and who they appoint as the postseason starter has enormous ramifications on their Stanley Cup aspirations. Let’s dig into how Francouz’s inspired play has forced Colorado’s top brass to grapple with a complex problem that could define this otherwise fruitful era of Avalanche hockey.

Francouz Performing at Pre-Injury Level

With the Avalanche’s goaltending carousel, no potential applicant has been as stricken by misfortune as Francouz, signed as a free agent prior to the 2018-19 season out of the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL). The now-31-year-old netminder entered his first NHL season with a 32-27-11 record and a .945 save percentage (SV%) across three campaigns and was named the KHL’s Best Goaltender for 2017-18 after leading the league in SV% in two consecutive seasons. His impressive track record pointed to a player promising to act as a cost-effective option to push then-starter Philipp Grubauer.

His first 36 NHL games (two in 2018-19, 34 in 2019-20) saw him put up a collective .923 SV% behind a record of 21-9-4, ranking eighth in save percentage over those two seasons (minimum five games played). As far as Avalanche management was concerned, they appeared to have uncovered a diamond in the rough from an often haphazard European free-agent market.

Instead of continuing to cement his place in the organization’s hierarchy, health concerns derailed his otherwise dazzling entrance to life as an NHL keeper. Francouz suffered a lower-body ailment, and the subsequent recovery from surgery kept him sidelined for the entire 2020-21 season, introducing further uncertainty into the Avalanche’s goaltending situation going forward.

Pavel Francouz Colorado Avalanche
Pavel Francouz, Colorado Avalanche (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The trepidation surrounding Francouz’s future capabilities contributed to Colorado’s frantic pursuit of Kuemper, meaning that the Avalanche rolled into the 2021-22 campaign with a revamped goaltending tandem. After a brief four-game conditioning stint in the American Hockey League (AHL) with the Colorado Eagles, in which he won three games and posted a .945 SV%, Francouz has made a triumphant return to the Avalanche’s ranks.

Since making his season debut in mid-December against the Nashville Predators, Francouz has been one of the league’s most impenetrable netminders. Among goalies to have played at least five games this season, Francouz is tied for fifth in SV% (.927) and eighth in goals-against average (GAA). His goals saved above expected (GSAx) value, which is the result of actual goals conceded subtracted by the expected total, sits 21st among qualified netminders according to MoneyPuck (2.0 goals).

In 44 total NHL appearances spanning three intermittent seasons, Francouz boasts a competitive record of 28-8-4 adorned by a .924 SV%, the fourth-best mark since 2018-19 (minimum 25 games played). He’s made good on his early promise as a free agent forging his path on a new continent and looks set to challenge Kuemper for the starting gig through the rest of the season.

Questions Remain About Kuemper’s Sustainability

To put it simply, Kuemper’s start to life as the Avalanche’s principal netminding option could not have gone any worse. After swapping uniforms with the auspicious, but rarely healthy Conor Timmins and a pair of draft picks, Kuemper now shouldered the twin burden of a high acquisition cost and replacing a Vezina Trophy finalist for a preseason Stanley Cup favorite.

Darcy Kuemper, Colorado Avalanche
Darcy Kuemper, Colorado Avalanche (Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images)

Through the end of November, Kuemper won nine of 15 games but forced a prolific offense to bail out his porous .903 SV%. That his early performances looked to continue a downward trend that began in his final season with the Coyotes (.907 SV% in 2020-21) roused legitimate concerns about his capability to function as a starting goalie. A spate of recent injury troubles limited Kuemper to 56 combined games from 2019 to 2021, only underlining the tense glances being shared around the Avalanche offices.

Yet, Kuemper appears to have found his groove after a turbulent settling-in period. Since the beginning of December, his stat lines more closely resemble his dominant stint as the Coyotes’ last line of defense. He won 12 of 16 games, and his corresponding .925 SV% ranks 13th among qualified goalies over that time (minimum five games played). In addition, Kuemper’s 9.9 GSAx also places him 13th overall on the season, representing a much more profitable return on Colorado’s sizeable investment.

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Unsurprisingly, the Avalanche have rocketed atop the overall NHL standings in accordance with Kuemper’s brilliance. They trail the Florida Panthers by a single point in the Presidents’ Trophy race (with three games in hand) and lead the league in points percentage (.773) at the All-Star break. His return to form helped the Avalanche achieve their best single-month performance in franchise history, winning 15 of their 16 games in January.

After an uncharacteristically slow start, in which the organization was ravaged by injuries and COVID scares, the Avalanche look like Stanley Cup favorites once more. That both Kuemper and Francouz have played a hand in their resurgence makes anointing the starting goalie all the more difficult.

Kuemper and Francouz Possess Limited Playoff Resumes

The entirety of Francouz’s NHL playoff catalog can be counted on two hands, a foreboding omen for the Avalanche who hope to vault over the second-round hump this time around.

Francouz struggled in the 2019-20 postseason after being forced into the starter’s role after Grubauer was sidelined through injury. In six games spanning two playoff rounds, Francouz emerged victorious on only two occasions and submitted a miserable .892 SV%, which resigned the Avalanche to an unexpected second-round defeat at the hands of the Dallas Stars. In his only AHL playoff stint, Francouz finished with a 1-3 record and posted a 3.31 GAA and .895 SV% in four games. Understandably, a level of apprehension swirls around Francouz’s postseason fortitude as a result.

Even so, Francouz has exhibited steely resolve during his playoff appearances in the KHL, winning eight of 17 games over two seasons with a .943 SV% for Traktor Chelyabinsk. His display in the 2018 Gagarin Cup Playoffs was particularly impressive, leading Traktor to the league semifinals, where they were ultimately swept by the eventual champions in Ak Bars Kazan. Francouz has yet to succeed in the proverbial second season while in North America, but his European experience offers hope that he can find his game.

Now, it’s not as though Kuemper’s playoff portfolio is much more impressive, as the 31-year-old veteran has only appeared in 18 total postseason games (seven wins) while posting an unassuming .913 SV%. Coincidentally, Kuemper’s last foray into the playoffs was unceremoniously extinguished by his current team. The Avalanche tortured the Coyotes to the tune of a 22-6 difference in goals over five games, including a pair of matching 7-1 routs in the series’ final two contests.

When comparing the two candidates’ portfolios, neither one convincingly differentiates themselves to the point that one could be etched in stone as the starter. It’s likely that their play down the stretch is the deciding factor, although it reflects poorly on general manager Joe Sakic if his prized offseason acquisition doesn’t pan out as expected.

Which Avalanche Goalie Starts In the Playoffs?

In truth, whichever half of the Avalanche’s netminding tandem enters the postseason in a starter’s capacity offers a dependable presence in goal. Both are firmly in the NHL’s upper stratosphere of goaltenders in terms of results and can count on the potent artillery that is Colorado’s forward group to provide consequential offensive support. Kuemper has rebounded after a dismal start to his tenure, but Francouz has picked up where he left off before his untimely injury. There are two right answers to the Avalanche’s crease conundrum, but which is the most correct?

Data courtesy of Hockey Reference, MoneyPuck, and the NHL.