Teams have submitted their final 23-man rosters to the league in preparation for the 2021-22 season, and though it wasn’t clear entering camp who the Arizona Coyotes would have on the bench to back up starter Carter Hutton, there weren’t too many people that had 25-year-old Karel Vejmelka penciled into that spot.
After a strong rookie development camp, rookie faceoff tournament, training camp, and preseason, Coyotes coach André Tourigny has done just that, though, opting for Vejmelka over two netminders who have previously appeared in the NHL — Josef Kořenář and Ivan Prosvetov. They were both assigned to the American Hockey League’s (AHL) Tucson Roadrunners, which means Vejmelka will almost certainly make his NHL debut in the coming weeks.
Vejmelka Anchored Team in Preseason With Strong Showing
Though he has virtually no North American hockey experience, Vejmelka looked right at home in the preseason, and impressed the coaching staff by stepping up to help the Coyotes maintain leads late in games. A relatively unknown prospect and Czech Republic native, he finished the preseason tied for the third-best goals-against average (GAA) in the league (1.20, tied with Carter Hart), and the second-best save percentage (SV%), .961.
He joined the Coyotes after agreeing to a one-year contract in May 2021.
The exhibition season culminated with a 3-1 win over the Vegas Golden Knights on Oct. 7, where Vejmelka stopped 25-of-26 shots, out-dueling seasoned veteran Robin Lehner in the team’s final preseason game. It also marked the first NHL game in which he played all 60 minutes.
“Saying he was up to par is an understatement. He was really good and he was a big part of our win [over Vegas], so he earned it,” Tourigny recently told the Arizona Republic’s Jose Romero. (from ‘Coyotes choose Karel Vejmelka as backup goaltender,’ Arizona Republic, Oct. 8, 2021)
Vejmelka was selected 145th overall by the Nashville Predators in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, and has played all of his hockey to this point in the Czech Republic. Most recently he spent the 2020-21 season with the Czech League’s Tipsport Extraliga, where he posted a 2.79 GAA and .911 SV% in 35 games with HC Kometa Brno. A model of consistency, his numbers were nearly identical a season earlier in 2019-20, at 2.71 and .911, respectively, in 43 games of work.
He’s a two-time Czech Extraliga champion (2016-17 & 2017-18), and earned a Silver Medal in the 2013-14 IIHF World U18 Championship.
Plenty of Options Remain in Tucson and Beyond
The departures of both Darcy Kuemper and Adin Hill left plenty of questions as to what Arizona’s personnel would look like between the pipes, but the Coyotes have no shortage of options, should they need to call someone up for either Hutton or Vejmelka. As mentioned earlier, both Kořenář and Prosvetov do have a little NHL experience.
The 23-year-old Kořenář appeared in 10 games last season with the San Jose Sharks, posting a 3.17 GAA and .899 SV% in the process. He arrived in Arizona as part of the deal that sent Hill to the Sharks over the summer, and was in net for the Coyotes’ only preseason loss, allowing five goals on 33 shots against the Dallas Stars.
Prosvetov, meanwhile, appeared in three games with the Coyotes last season, starting just one of them, so he’s got a very small sampling size. He stopped 42-of-51 shots (.824 SV%) while posting a 4.15 GAA, going 0-1-0 in the process. He also appeared in 18 games with Tucson last season, posting a 3.54 GAA and .895 SV%. The Russian netminder was drafted 114th overall by Arizona in the 2018 NHL entry draft.
David Tendeck, who also participated in the Coyotes’ camp this season, will start the season back with the ECHL’s Rapid City Rush after appearing in 27 games with them last season. The 2018 sixth-round selection accumulated a 2.78 GAA and .909 SV% over that span.
One last youngster who truly impressed in the preseason, Anson Thornton, signed an entry-level deal with the Coyotes, per Craig Morgan. The 18-year-old, currently with the Ontario Hockey League’s Sarnia Sting, has yet to appear in a game for the Sting, but has already inked the deal after stopping all 17 shots he saw in one period of preseason action.
Hutton Primed to Lead The Way
The veteran Hutton signed a one-year deal with Arizona in the offseason, and will be counted on to help lead the way amongst an extremely young an inexperienced backup corps, regardless of who’s behind him. The former Buffalo Sabres, Nashville Predators, St. Louis Blues, and Chicago Blackhawks netminder is in a good position to do so, with nine years and 232 games of NHL experience to his name.
In his career, he’s 94-88-27 with a 2.71 GAA and .909 SV%, though he needs to have a solid bounceback season after going just 1-10-1 with a 3.47 GAA and .886 SV% in 12 starts with the Sabres last season. Yes, the team was abysmal, but the Coyotes aren’t exactly expect to contend this season, so it’ll be interesting to see how he handles the spotlight this season.
Regardless, there’s no shortage of one-two combinations this season for the Coyotes, and fans will likely see a number of different looks from the team this season. For now, though, keep your eyes on Vejmelka, who is set to debut in the NHL this season.
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A die-hard hockey fan in the desert, and proud Iowa State alum. Detroit Red Wings and Arizona Coyotes contributor for The Hockey Writers.