The Colorado Avalanche captured lightning in a bottle when they traded for goaltender Phillip Grubauer three summers ago. Though lightning rarely strikes the same place twice, the Avs are hoping they can bottle it a couple of times.
This offseason, Grubauer departed in free agency, signing with the expansion Seattle Kraken on July 28. General manager Joe Sakic didn’t waste time in replacing him, trading for Darcy Kuemper later that same afternoon. Sakic acquired the 31-year-old goaltender from the Arizona Coyotes for a pair of draft picks and Conor Timmins.
Kuemper and Grubauer’s career stats are eerily similar. Both started their careers as backups, and both have played nine seasons in the NHL. Kuemper has logged 242 games and Grubauer 214. Grubauer has a 2.34 goals-against average (GAA) and a .920 save percentage (SV%), while Kuemper is close behind at 2.42 and .917, respectively. With Colorado in win-now mode, the real question is whether or not Kuemper can step in and perform as well as Grubauer did the past two seasons.
What Makes Kuemper Good
Kuemper has spent most of his career as a backup or in an even split with another netminder. After he was drafted by the Minnesota Wild in 2009, he backed up Devan Dubnyk for a handful of seasons before signing with the Los Angeles Kings. He lasted just 19 games with the Kings in 2017-18 before he was dealt to the Coyotes. He was the go-to starter in 2018-19, before splitting time the next two seasons with Antti Raanta and Adin Hill.
Kuemper has been remarkably consistent and has shown that he can handle a heavy workload. In 2018-19 he started 55 games. He has 20 shutouts in his career, and five of them came that season when he finished fifth in Vezina Trophy voting. Last season, he was very good for a team that wasn’t. He allowed more than three goals on just four occasions in 28 games and had a pair of losses when he gave up just one goal.
Offensive support will not be an issue with the Avalanche, who led the NHL with 197 goals last season and were only shut out twice – within eight days in February against Marc-Andre Fleury and the Vegas Golden Knights.
It’s a similar refrain, but Colorado needs Kuemper to stay healthy because goaltending depth was a major weakness last season. He’s been pretty healthy throughout his career but missed time on a couple of occasions during last season’s cramped schedule.
Consistency Was Key for Grubauer in Colorado
Grubauer was maybe the most important player for the Avalanche last season, out of sheer necessity. Injuries and lack of depth at the goaltending position forced him to play almost every day. He played 40 of Colorado’s 56 regular-season games and racked up 30 wins.
The 2020-21 regular season was no small task for the Avs. They had a pair of COVID shutdowns, which forced a cramped schedule into an even tighter space. From Feb. 20 to Apr. 14, they played 30 games. That’s more than half of their schedule in just 54 days. Grubauer appeared in 23 of those games, with a 17-5-1 record, a 1.92 GAA and a .912 SV%.
Grubauer didn’t spend the 2020-21 campaign riding the wave of a power-packed offensive team in front of him. He led the NHL in shutouts with seven (tied with the New York Islanders’ Semyon Varlamov), was second in GAA at 1.95, and was seventh in SV% at .923. Colorado’s offensive pressure led to some quieter nights for Grubauer – five of his shutouts required 21 saves or less – but those two things aren’t mutually exclusive. His reliability was a big reason why the offense was so effective.
He was astounding heading into the playoffs. Over the final three months of the season, Grubauer had a 20-4-1 record with an incredible 0.66 GAA and a .922 SV%. That consistency made him just the third Vezina Trophy finalist in Avalanche history (Patrick Roy in 1997 and 2002; Varlamov in 2014). If Kuemper wants to keep the Avalanche on the shortlist of Stanley Cup contenders, he needs to be that consistent.
What the Avs Need From Kuemper to Contend
Many of the Avalanche faithful were bummed when Grubauer left, but Kuemper has been essentially the same goaltender. The difference is that Kuemper had a much worse team in front of him in Arizona. During the three seasons when he was a starter for the Coyotes, he had a 53-42-13 record with a .922 SV% and a 2.35 GAA. That compares well to Grubauer, who went 66-30-10 with a .918 SV% and 2.38 GAA in the same seasons.
Kuemper has only 18 career playoff appearances, and a third of those were in one of only two playoff series he’s won; he played six contests during the Wild’s seven-game first-round series victory over the Avalanche in 2014. But he seems like a grizzled postseason veteran compared to Grubauer’s arrival in Colorado. Before joining the team, Grubauer had only four playoff appearances despite winning the Stanley Cup with the Washington Capitals in 2018.
Playoff experience will be the biggest question mark, but at least Kuemer has some victories under his belt, and it’s not like this roster has had tons of success in the postseason, either. The Avalanche haven’t made it past the second round since the 2009-10 season. That’s an eternity considering Craig Anderson was that team’s primary goaltender, and Chris Stewart led the team in goals. Seriously.
But with question marks flying even before the puck has dropped on the regular season – backup Pavel Francouz is already hurt in maybe the least surprising development of the preseason – Kuemper’s health and availability are paramount. He has the weapons in front of him, but he will need to stay healthy, stay consistent and rise to expectations. Some of those are out of his control, but most of them will be up to Kuemper.