Big Questions Surround Avalanche Goaltending

When Colorado Avalanche goaltender Darcy Kuemper suffered an injury during the morning skate this past Tuesday in Toronto, it exposed a number of questions about the strength and depth of the team’s goaltending corps. Those questions were exacerbated when backup goaltender Jonas Johansson turned in bad performances in two of the team’s last three games. To add insult to injury, or this case injury to insult, Colorado’s normal backup goalie, Pavel Francouz, who spent the entire 2020-21 season on the injured reserve list, started this year on the sidelines once again, this time due to an ankle sprain suffered in the preseason. He’s on a rehab assignment now with the Colorado Eagles in the American Hockey League (AHL).

Questions about the goaltending corps threaten to derail Colorado’s hopes of winning the Stanley Cup. While the team is, as of this writing, still the betting line favorite to win the Cup, with losses in two of their last three games, including an overtime loss to a weak Ottawa Senators team, it’s hard to imagine that will last.

This Year’s Goaltending a Far Cry From Last Year

Last season, the Avalanche had the benefit of Philipp Grubauer’s career-best effort in net, when he posted a 1.95 goals-against average (GAA), a .922 save percentage (SV%) and a league-leading (tied with Semyon Varlamov of the New York Islanders ) seven shutouts. Grubauer continued his stellar play in the postseason with a .914 SV% and 2.6 GAA. If you discount the team’s final game against the Vegas Golden Knights, his one truly weak performance in the playoffs, the SV% goes up to .929, and the GAA drops to 2.0.

Grubauer was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy for the league’s best performance by a goalie. (He lost to Marc-Andre Fleury.) A free agent at the season’s end, Grubauer parlayed his stellar performance into a six-year contract with the Seattle Kraken worth $35.4 million.

Philipp Grubauer, Seattle Kraken
Philipp Grubauer, Seattle Kraken (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

With Francouz unavailable last season, Avalanche executive vice president and general manager Joe Sakic acquired Johansson from the Buffalo Sabres for a sixth-round draft pick, and Devan Dubnyk from the San Jose Sharks for defenseman Greg Pateryn and a fifth-round pick. Johansson was impressive in relief of Grubauer last season, posting a 5-1-1 record, with a 2.06 GAA and a .913 SV%. But Johansson and Dubynk were true back-ups. With Grubauer standing on his head night after night, neither goalie saw anytime in net during the postseason.

When summer came and it was clear he would not be able to retain Grubauer, Sakic acquired Kuemper from the Arizona Coyotes for promising young defenseman Conor Timmins, a first-round draft pick, and a conditional third-round pick. Most observers agreed that though the price was high, it was a good move by Colorado. Now, several months later, things aren’t panning out as the team had planned, and the future of Colorado’s goaltending core is raising more questions than providing answers.

Let’s look at the current group of netminders and examine the options Sakic and the Avalanche have moving forward.

Darcy Kuemper

At age 31, Darcy Kuemper is in the prime of his goaltending career. His .916 SV% and 2.49 GAA over a 10-year span are very respectable. Compare that to career numbers for two of the best in the game, Andre Vasilevskiy (.920 SV% and 2.48 GAA ) and Fleury (.913 SVV% and 2.55 GAA), and it’s clear that Kuemper plays at an elite level.

Related: Avalanche Need Kuemper to Deliver Like Grubauer

But only twice over those ten years has Kuemper played in more than 30 games: 31 games in the 2014-15 season and 55 games in the 2018-19 season. In Vasilevskiy’s eight seasons in the league, he’s played in more than 30 games five times and more than 50 games four times. Fleury is even more impressive, playing in more than 30 games in 16 of his 18 seasons in the NHL and 50 or more games 10 times. Kuemper simply isn’t durable.

Andrei Vasilevskiy Tampa Bay Lightning 2020 Stanley Cup
Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Tampa Bay Lightning hoists the 2020 Stanley Cup
(Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

The 6-foot-5, 215-pound Saskatoon, Saskatchewan native also isn’t necessarily getting better. His scoring chance save percentage (SCSV%) — which measures his effectiveness against shots that are most likely to result in a goal — is .838 and has declined each of the past three seasons. Compare that to Vasilevskiy’s .892 and Fleury’s .875, and Kuemper seems a notch below those elite players. So far this season, Kuemper has posted a pedestrian .903 SV% and 2.84 GAA.

Kuemper is earning $3.5 million this year and becomes an unrestricted free agent (UFA) at the end of the season.

Pavel Francouz

At 6-feet tall and weighing only 179 pounds, and wearing his glove on his right hand, Francouz is an unusual figure for a goaltender. But Francouz’s size hasn’t hurt his success when he’s been in the net. In a very small sample — only 36 games in the NHL, all with Colorado — Francouz has a .923 SV% and 2.40 GAA. The same age as Kuemper (Francouz is four weeks younger), the Czech native spent most of his playing career in the Czech Republic and the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) in Russia, having success in both countries.

But like Kuemper, Francouz has had trouble staying on the ice. The last NHL game he appeared in was in August of 2020, Game 4 of the second round of the playoffs against the Dallas Stars. Francouz surrendered all five goals in the loss and was pulled with ten minutes to go in the game. He was in net in place of an injured Grubauer, and was replaced by Colorado’s third-string goaltender, Michael Hutchinson.

Francouz did have a very strong start last night for the Colorado Eagles, turning aside all 27 shots he faced to notch his fourth shutout in an Eagles sweater. He will likely be recalled to the Avalanche this week. His contract is worth $2 million this year, and like Kuemper, he becomes a UFA at the end of this season.

Jonas Johansson and Justus Annunen

Other than his strong performance with the Avalanche in the regular season last year, Johansson has been inconsistent at best in his NHL career. In 28 games played (23 starts), he has a 9-11-4 record, with a .895 SV% and 3.02 GAA. The 26-year-old native of Galve, Sweden, is earning $750k this year, and becomes a restricted free agent (RFA) at the end of the season. If he’s sent down to the minors to make room for Francouz, he will have to clear waivers. His recent poor performance makes it seem unlikely he’d be claimed, so expect him to spend time in Colorado Springs with the Eagles.

Justus Annunen Karpat
Justus Annunen of Karpat (courtesy Karpat)

Justus Annunen, the 6-foot-4, 210 pound native of Kempele, Finland, was selected in the third round (64th overall) of the 2018 draft by the Avalanche. He was named the AHL’s goalie of the month for November for his play with the Eagles — he sported an impressive 5-1-2 record with a .937 SV% and a spectacular 1.83 GAA in the month. He made his NHL debut this past week in relief of Johansson. He surrendered one goal on 18 shots in regulation and a game-losing goal on a breakaway from Brady Tkachuk in overtime.

Annunen is being paid $880,833 each of the next two seasons, and becomes an RFA at the end of the 2022-23 campaign.

Avalanche Options for the Future

The Avalanche have several different options for addressing their goaltending issues this season:

A. Ride out the season with Kuemper and Francouz. This is the most sensible and cost-effective option for Sakic, but it’s also fraught with risk. Not only has Kuemper’s season failed to meet expectations, but he and Francouz have also been proven, time and again, that they’re injury-prone. The last thing the Avalanche want is a repeat of previous postseasons when second and third-string goalies were starting important playoff games.

B. Trade Francouz and keep Johansson as the team’s backup, with Annunen in the AHL as a reserve option. With the nightmare week Johansson just had, it’s hard to imagine either Sakic or Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar having enough confidence in him to go this route. They would likely rather roll the dice Francouz staying healthy than go to bat with an ineffective Johansson on the bench.

C. Keep Kuemper as the number one goalie and trade for a backup. In this option, Francouz gets traded, and Johansson gets placed on waivers. The Avalanche will then need to part with good players and/or prospects to try to secure the services of a strong number two goalie. One option might be Petr Mrazek of the Toronto Maple Leafs. With Jack Campbell playing out of his mind (.942 SV% 1.78 GAA), Mrazek might be expendable.

Petr Mrazek, Toronto Maple Leafs
Petr Mrazek, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Other options might be either Anton Khudobin or Ben Bishop of the resurgent Dallas Stars. Bishop is due to return from injury soon, and with Braden Holtby a strong number one in net for Dallas, the team will likely want or need to move one of their three goalies. Mrazek, Khudobin, and Bishop would not come cheap, and all three carry high price tags.

D. Trade for a new number one goaltender. This would be a blockbuster, and would involve moving Kuemper out. The hottest name on the trade market right now is Fleury, who was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks in the offseason and has not played especially well (6-9-0, .913 SV%, 2.90 GAA) so far this season. There are also rumors the Stars would move Holtby, though with the team going 8-2-0 in their last ten games, winning six in a row, that may be wishful thinking.

With Kuemper being a UFA at the end of this season, he has little value to teams not contending for a playoff berth, meaning the Avalanche would have to give up a lot more than Kuemper to get a number one netminder. Think Sam Girard or Nazem Kadri. I’m not sure the team, or its fans, would be willing to take that chance.

The best option here is C. Trade Francouz, send Johansson down, and find a battle-tested, reliable backup who can share more playing time with the injury-prone Kuemper. If Kuemper can stay healthy, and importantly if the defense can stay healthy in front of him, he should be good enough to take the team on a deep playoff run. But those are big “ifs.” To avoid a replay of previous postseasons, the Avalanche need a proven, durable, second option in net for the balance of this campaign and to make goaltending one of their top priorities in next year’s off-season.

Colorado is back in action Monday night when they play their fourth game of a five-game road trip against the Philadelphia Flyers.

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