Avalanche’s Kuemper Should Be Vezina Trophy Finalist

After Philipp Grubauer, a Vezina Trophy finalist in 2020-21, set sail for Seattle and signed with the Kraken in free agency, the Colorado Avalanche were left with a sizable hole in the crease. Darcy Kuemper was procured from the Arizona Coyotes in a subsequent trade, and anointed the starting goaltender ahead of the 2021-22 campaign. His Avalanche tenure got off to a rocky start, but he has sparkled in recent months, eliminating the one potential weakness of this otherwise loaded roster. Even while backstopping the Stanley Cup favourites, Kuemper’s play this season is worthy of Vezina Trophy buzz, and he should be named one of the three finalists come awards time. Let’s dig in.

Kuemper Posting Impressive Numbers as Avalanche Starter

For those who vote on the NHL awards, the traditional box score numbers often serve as the primary evidence for a goaltender’s Vezina case. Luckily for Kuemper, his results rank among the league’s best at his position, bolstered by the Avalanche’s explosive attack and dominant defensive group.

KuemperNHL Rank
Games Played5012
Save Percentage.9263
Goals-Against Average2.377
Darcy Kuemper’s 2021-22 statistics (NHL ranks among goalies with a minimum of 10 games played)

It wasn’t all smooth sailing for Kuemper though, as he navigated through a turbulent adjustment period after being transplanted into the Avalanche’s high-flying system. Even though the former Coyotes netminder won 13 of his 19 starts up until Jan. 1, his save percentage (SV%) sat at a paltry .907, 38th among goalies with at least five games played during that time. It wasn’t until the team rattled off an NHL record for wins in a single month due to a weak January schedule that Kuemper found his game.

Since the calendar turned to 2022, the 31-year-old veteran has looked much more like the goaltender who often stood on his head behind a wobbly Arizona squad in recent seasons. He’s posted a .937 SV% (second since Jan. 1) in 31 games all the while facing the fourth-most shots during that time. He’s a big reason why the organization is on the verge of consecutive Presidents’ Trophy wins, even if his job is made a little easier than most of his positional contemporaries.

Darcy Kuemper Colorado Avalanche
Darcy Kuemper, Colorado Avalanche (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Surprisingly, the 6-foot-5 behemoth has often been peppered in games this season, despite Colorado’s overwhelming collection of talent in front of him. He’s made 40-or-more saves in a single game on six occasions, tied for second among all goaltenders. He is also tied for the league lead in terms of 40-save games where he’s allowed two goals or less (four), no stranger to stonewalling the opposition when he’s called upon.

For his efforts, Kuemper has climbed to sixth on the franchise’s single-season wins list, with his 34 victories seven behind the record of 41 from Semyon Varlamov in the 2013-14 season. Whether or not he sets a new record depends on how imperative the team sees claiming another Presidents’ Trophy. The Avalanche still have 10 games remaining on the season, and sit 13 points ahead of the second-place Calgary Flames in the Western Conference, but only two points ahead of the Florida Panthers in the league-wide race.

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If the Avalanche (rightly) value Kuemper’s health and durability over complete home-ice advantage, it’s unlikely that he starts, let alone wins, seven more games. The Carolina Hurricanes are third in the Presidents’ Trophy race with 102 points to Colorado’s 110 in one additional game, so Florida is the only team to consider a legitimate threat to finishing first overall. Five wins sound like a more plausible outcome, which would put Kuemper third behind Varlamov and Patrick Roy (40 in 2000-01). Both will have played in more games than Kuemper (60 if he plays every game from here on out), but Roy in particular did not have the luxury of tacking on shootout wins to his total, of which Kuemper has two this season.

Igor Shesterkin (New York Rangers), Kuemper, Frederik Andersen (Hurricanes) and Jacob Markstrom are the only netminders within the top five of both wins and save percentage, two metrics to which the voting bloc pays a lot of attention. The dominance of the Avalanche works against him, but the advanced stats suggest that Kuemper isn’t an undeserving beneficiary of team strength.

Kuemper’s Advanced Metrics Shine Bright

While the box score stats are often cited, they can sometimes fail to tell the whole story of a player’s performance. Certain categories, such as wins, can be bloated by playing behind a strong group of skaters, and tell us little about the goalie’s ability to stop the puck. Advanced statistics can provide additional context that the traditional box score numbers can’t, such as the quality of chances a goaltender faces on a given night, or over the course of a season.

Darcy Kuemper Colorado Avalanche
Darcy Kuemper, Colorado Avalanche (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

A number of public statistical models have cropped up in recent years which aim to assign a value to any shot that is taken within the offensive zone. The value is based on the historical success of previous shots taken from the same spot on the ice, and estimates how likely a given attempt is to become a goal. What results is an expected goals value (xG) that is presented in a cumulative or per-60-minute format. Public models are limited by a lack of tracking data provided by the NHL so factors such as pre-shot movement are missing from the equation. Still, they are a useful tool for providing additional context shots which are usually all treated equally.

According to MoneyPuck, Colorado ranks seventh in expected goals against per-60 (xGA/60) at 5v5, one of the stingiest defensive numbers among assumed Cup contenders. Even so, Kuemper has saved the third-most goals above expected (GSAx) in both cumulative and per-60 terms. They fare slightly worse in terms of all-situations xGA/60 (13th), but that’s a blemish that can be overcome by an elite offence and power-play group. In any case, he has proven elite by any objective measure this season.

KuemperNHL Rank
Goals Saved Above Expected24.83
Goals Saved Above Expected/600.5243
5v5 Low Danger Save Percentage.9703
5v5 Medium Danger Save Percentage.90910
5v5 High Danger Save Percentage.80816
Darcy Kuemper’s 2021-22 advanced statistics (NHL ranks among goalies with a minimum of 10 games played)

Although the ability to steal games is crucial come playoff time, consistency is just as important when it comes to goalies steering a team to the promised land. According to Hockey Reference, the league average SV% so far this season is .903, giving us a starting template for judging Kuemper’s consistency in 2021-22. He has finished with a SV% of .903 or better in 37 games this season, tied for fourth in the NHL. If we increase the threshold to .915, he moves out of the top five into eighth with 30 total games but remains one of the leaders by percentage.

Total Games PlayedGames with >= .915 SV%% of Consistent Games
Juuse Saros603660%
Igor Shesterkin483471%
Jacob Markstrom573358%
Andrei Vasilevskiy563359%
Thatcher Demko583255%
Connor Hellebuyck623252%
Tristan Jarry573154%
Darcy Kuemper503060%
Frederik Andersen502754%
NHL goalies ranked by total games with a SV% >= .915 in 2021-22

Kuemper hasn’t played as many games as his statistical peers, and the Avalanche’s dominance shouldn’t be held against him either. Apart from a few names on that list, most play behind some of the league’s top teams. No matter the task thrown at him, he has answered the bell.

Playoff Success Is Kuemper’s Final Hurdle

For a goalie who is in the midst of his 10th NHL season, Kuemper’s playoff portfolio is fairly limited. He’s only made 18 appearances over four postseasons and owns a solid, but unspectacular .913 save percentage (SV%) over that time. It follows that as long as he can maintain league-average numbers, the Avalanche have the ability to outscore their opposition at will.

Backstopping a Stanley Cup favourite is a much different endeavour than standing on your head for a playoff hopeful, but Kuemper has shown he has what it takes to succeed underneath the spotlight. Does that continue into the spring, and will his excellence be recognized in the Vezina discussion? If the voters can move past surface-level analysis, he should become Colorado’s second-consecutive Vezina finalist.

Data courtesy of Hockey Reference, MoneyPuck and the NHL. Statistics are accurate as of April 12, 2022.

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