As is custom, the start of the 2022 NHL offseason has been explosive, with draft day dealings and free agent rumblings setting the stage for a whirlwind of transactions. Most intriguing is the goaltending carousel, as few legitimate starters look to hit the open market while even more teams have an opening in their crease. With several netminders already finding a new home, the market is sure to heat up exponentially for one of the few options remaining in Darcy Kuemper, the leading man for the 2022 Stanley Cup-winning Colorado Avalanche.
Given that the Avalanche acquired Alexandar Georgiev from the New York Rangers prior to the draft and have Pavel Francouz under contract through 2023-24, all indications point to the pending unrestricted free agent (UFA) testing his value on the open market. Although there are concerns surrounding his age (32), history of inconsistent play, and recent injury troubles, he remains the most proven free-agent option available. With that, let’s dive into what Kuemper can offer interested suitors and explore four potential destinations.
Teams Getting Solid Veteran Starter In Kuemper
The short of it is that by inking Kuemper, the signing team captures a veteran goaltender with the capability of elevating his play when needed. He’s demonstrated that he can backstop weaker teams to success (Arizona Coyotes, Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota Wild) while also standing tall behind a Stanley Cup champion in the Avalanche.
Since the 2019-20 season, Kuemper ranks fourth in total goals saved above expected (GSAX) and third in save percentage (SV%), which are elite regular-season numbers. For those interested in recent results, Kuemper’s 2021-22 season was Vezina Trophy-calibre, as he finished the campaign fifth in total GSAx and SV% among goalies with at least 10 appearances. Unfortunately, his postseason play took some of the shine off of his otherwise stellar regular-season performance.
In his defence, an eye injury suffered in Round 1 necessitated multiple trips to an optometrist per day during the Avalanche’s playoff run. It’s not unfeasible that he makes a full recovery and returns to his pre-injury form, but that could be too big of a gamble for teams with championship aspirations who find themselves up against the salary cap ceiling. Add in the MCL injury from his time with the Wild and his health struggles this season, and suddenly he looks more like a potential free-agent bust candidate than a bonafide, long-term starter.
Even so, the fact that Kuemper appeared composed in the Cup Final should assuage some of the fears brought on by his inconsistent turnouts. Further, some contending teams are extremely desperate for a starting-calibre netminder, and those concerns could take a back seat to the desire for wins. With the 2022 free-agent period set to open on July 13th, more clarity should arise as to his next destination.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Once again, the Toronto Maple Leafs are in a bit of a pickle when it comes to shoring up their goaltending. General manager Kyle Dubas has not ruled out a return for pending UFA Jack Campbell, although his options are quickly dwindling with a number of goalies finding a place in the NHL’s version of musical chairs.
The Maple Leafs completed a cap-dump trade with the Chicago Blackhawks involving Petr Mrazek at the draft, clearing up salary room for an addition in the crease. Their goaltending depth chart currently reads Erik Kallgren and Joseph Woll, two players who would benefit from more seasoning in the American Hockey League (AHL). It’s possible that one (likely Kallgren) starts the year as the backup, but a clear need for a starter remains if the team hopes to build on their admirable showing against the eventual Stanley Cup finalists in the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round.
A strong team in front of an average goalie can mask his deficiencies (just ask the Avalanche), and it appears as though Toronto has little choice but to enter next season with a question mark in goal, whether their starter is Campbell, Kuemper, or another less-than-ideal option. Such is the nature of the modern NHL goaltending market.
Apart from the Maple Leafs, the Edmonton Oilers are the team most in need of a legitimate primary goalie heading into next season. They reached the 2022 Western Conference Final but were unceremoniously swept by the Avalanche. Poor rush defence and back-breaking mistakes from Mike Smith eventually sunk them, suggesting that a more reliable option in net could push them to the next level. The Western Conference looks to be wide open once more with the uncertainty surrounding the Calgary Flames and Wild, and the Oilers would do well to capitalize on the opportunity.
Since 2019-20, the Oilers have received a .907 team SV% from their goaltenders, the 12th-best mark over that time. Most teams would love above-average netminding, but playoff meltdowns eliminate much of that goodwill. General manager Ken Holland has made questionable moves (from ‘Lowetide: Grading the first 3 years of Ken Holland’s Oilers trades’ – Allan Mitchell, The Athletic, 01/26/22) during his stint at the helm of the Oilers, but rectifying this weakness can go a long way in solidifying his reputation. It doesn’t hurt to have Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in the fold, though.
If there is one team that Kuemper could fit in with purely based on vibes, it would be the Washington Capitals. Considering the 2018 Stanley Cup champions are heading into 2022-23 with an aging, but expensive core of Alexander Ovechkin, John Carlson, T.J. Oshie, and Nicklas Backstrom, adding the veteran Kuemper could align with their efforts to win another title before the end of Ovechkin’s storied career. A painful rebuild approaches, the cruel reality of almost two decades of Cup contention.
Although restricted free agent (RFA) Ilya Samsonov remains under team control, the Capitals traded netminder Vitek Vanecek to the New Jersey Devils. His departure leaves a spot open on the depth chart, and Samsonov’s inconsistent displays since becoming a full-time option leave much to be desired. Since 2019-20, he ranks 75th in SV% and 111th in GSAx, among the worst of all qualified goaltenders, a far cry from the heights suggested by his draft pedigree.
Given how the Capitals moved on from Braden Holtby, who was similarly exiting his prime at the time of his contract expiry, it’s unlikely the team makes a commitment to Kuemper. Regardless, the Capitals remain a secondary option at this point in time.
Of the four teams realistically still in the market for a starting goaltender, the Buffalo Sabres are the least likely to sign Kuemper. They recently re-signed veteran Craig Anderson and could look to promote top prospect Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen in a tandem of sorts. While their rebuild is quickly accelerating with the work of general manager Kevyn Adams, they are still far from legitimate contention.
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Still, Luukkonen could use more opportunities to marinate in the AHL, gaining confidence while racking up plenty of starts behind a strong minor-league outfit. Additionally, Anderson appears to have embraced the wizened veteran role and is likely not seeking an AHL role at this stage of his career. Still, Adams made an attempt to trade for Matt Murray of the Ottawa Senators, suggesting targeting Kuemper could be a realistic option.
In the end, adding Kuemper for what is likely a multi-year commitment only serves to block Luukkonen’s long-term development and isn’t an appropriate move for their competitive timeline.
Kuemper Hitting Free Agency at Perfect Time
All things considered, the expiration of Kuemper’s contract could not have arrived at a more ideal time. Not only can he point to the newly-minted Stanley Cup championship on his resume, but the abrupt shortage of quality options in the crease means that his talents will be in high demand. Although teams would be wise to avoid handing hefty, long-term pacts to goalies on the downswing of their careers, Kuemper is likely to cash in on his strong performance in 2021-22. Only one question remains, where does he call home in 2022-23?
Marko is an aspiring sportswriter with a passion for crafting stories while using a combination of the eye-test and (shudder) analytics, which is complemented by an academic background in criminology and political science.
When not covering the Colorado Avalanche and Pittsburgh Penguins for The Hockey Writers, he can also be found pouring countless hours into various sports video games franchises, indulging in science fiction novels, and taking long runs around his neighbourhood.