Avalanche’s Kuemper Struggling to Replicate Past Success

When entrenched starting goaltender Phillip Grubauer set sail for the unexplored shores of Seattle, the Colorado Avalanche faced an intimidating void in goal. After consecutive seasons in which the playoff performances of their goalies left a lot to be desired, entering another year with a question mark in net was a non-starter. In response, general manager Joe Sakic swung a trade for Darcy Kuemper of the Arizona Coyotes, oft-praised for his stellar displays behind a porous defense. While it’s still early, Kuemper has not come as advertised, struggling to acclimate to the high-wire Avalanche system. Let’s break down his sub-optimal start to the 2021-22 season, and where he might go from here.

High Expectations From Coyotes Tenure

Kuemper is the prototypical late-bloomer, having never played more than half of his team’s games until the 2018-19 season when he made 55 appearances in the Coyotes’ net as a 28-year-old. Over the past three seasons, Kuemper played 111 games in the desert, compiling a record of 53-42-13 on the back of a .922 save percentage (SV%) in all situations, sixth in the NHL among goalies with at least 1000 minutes played. According to Natural Stat Trick, he’s also saved the fourth-most goals-above-average (GSAA) in the same time span, a statistic which compares a given goalie’s results to that of the league-average net-minder. No matter how you slice it, Kuemper joined the Avalanche with a track record of success.

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

Now, Kuemper’s main bugaboo is his inconsistent health, throwing a wrench into his otherwise positive results as a professional. According to NHL Injury Viz, the 31-year-old has missed 83 games through injury since his NHL debut in 2012-13, and 50 in the last two seasons alone. His lingering lower-body issues likely impacted his play last season, culminating in Kuemper posting his lowest SV% since 2016-17 (.907 in 27 games). As Kuemper moves past his peak and becomes well-acquainted with the doctor’s office, all bets are off as to whether this volatility represents a worrying trend, or a minor blip on the radar.

Kuemper Struggles Early With Avalanche

Kuemper has split his first six starts for the Avalanche, currently the owner of 3-3-0 record. In those appearances, he’s registered an ugly .893 SV% and allowed a total of 19 goals giving him an appalling 3.19 goals-against average (GAA) on the year. The advanced statistics don’t paint his performances in a brighter light either, as Natural Stat Trick’s GSAA has him down for the third-worst mark among goalies. Elsewhere, MoneyPuck’s goals-saved-above-expected (GSAE) metric estimates that Kuemper has conceded the third-most goals above expected based on the quality of chances he’s faced each game. When both the traditional and new-age metrics agree that you’ve been abysmal, that’s when you know things haven’t gone as expected.

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The most frustrating aspect of Kuemper’s early stumbles is that he’s demonstrated an aptitude for backstopping much worse teams than the Avalanche. Heading into the third weekend of the season, Colorado is allowing the sixth-lowest rate of expected goals per-60-minutes (xGA/60) and third-fewest scoring chances per-60 (SCA/60) at 5v5, meaning the former Coyote isn’t being bombarded with threatening looks. Now, he could be the type of net-minder who thrives under the weight of an abnormally strenuous workload, but that doesn’t fully excuse his strained displays to this point.

Can Kuemper Turn It Around?

Any claims that Kuemper is washed are a tad premature, as he carried a decent sample size of inspired performances to his new home in Denver. His career SV% of .916 suggests that the woeful mark he’s currently lugging around is primed for a significant rebound. His recent injury history is the big, grey elephant in the room, but the gods of regression should be kind to a goalie finding his feet with a new franchise, especially one which posts such strong defensive results as the Avalanche. Remember to breathe everyone, there are 75 games to go which leaves lot’s of time to panic if worst comes to worst. My money is on Kuemper to turn it around – anyone else?

Data courtesy of Hockey Reference, MoneyPuck, Natural Stat Trick, and NHL Injury Viz. Statistics accurate as of October 30th, 2021.

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