ST. PAUL, Minn. – If all had gone according to plans and expectations last summer, when the Minnesota Wild were openly shopping their backup goalie, Darcy Keumper wouldn’t be in Minnesota right now.
If all had followed the popular trade rumors in October, when the Los Angeles Kings were thought to be in desperate need of goaltending due to Jonathan Quick’s injury, the Wild would’ve sent Keumper west for a draft pick or a prospect then.
But as John Lennon once crooned, “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
For Kuemper, life today means getting a start in goal for the Western Conference’s top team maybe once a week, providing some rest for regular Devan Dubnyk, and perhaps showcasing himself for the next team that could give him an opportunity to be an every night goalie somewhere down the line.
“Lately I’ve been kind of getting a start a week which is a lot easier to stay in a rhythm and feel comfortable right from the drop of the puck,” Kuemper said on Thursday after stopping 34 of 35 Dallas Stars shots and coming oh so close to his first shutout of the season.
His previous start had kicked off the current eight-game homestand. Kuemper faced the Chicago Blackhawks on the second night of back-to-back games and lost in a shootout. One uninformed TV analyst called it an arrogant move on the part of the Wild to start their backup against their closest competitor in the Central Division race. But Kuemper’s coach doesn’t see backup-quality play from Kuemper these days.
“I thought he was by far our best player tonight,” Wild coach Bruce Boudreau said after the Dallas win. “He finally got rewarded for the effort he’s been putting in to practice, and to be thrown into games, coming back off the road and having to face Chicago for example, we have faith in him and that’s why we do those things.”
Kuemper had the starter’s role in Minnesota roughly 26 months ago, and wasn’t ready. His struggles two seasons ago put the team in a tailspin, and were the reason for the mid-January 2015 trade that brought Dubnyk to town for a song. It dramatically changed the fortunes of the franchise.
The backup goalie knows that, and knows his place in the eyes of Boudreau, and in the current makeup of this team that has designs on playing games in June.
“Obviously Duby is having an outstanding season,” Kuemper said. “It’s hard for Bruce to not put him in the way he’s been playing. I want to play as many games as I can, and I’m just excited when I get the opportunity.”
To be sure, Kuemper heard all the trade talk, and knows he could be playing somewhere else next season. But for now, he’s relishing his role on a Stanley Cup contender for the first time, even if it means facing live ammunition just once a week.
“I’ve been here for a long time and a lot of my best friends are on the team,” Kuemper said. “There was a lot of talk but I try to ignore it the best I can. I was excited to stay a part of this. It’s not too often you get to be on a team this good, so I’m just trying to enjoy it and be ready for the games I do get.”
— With Bemidji State claiming the MacNaughton Cup as WCHA champions last weekend with a sweep at Alabama Huntsville, all five of Minnesota’s Division I hockey programs have won the trophy at least once, and most of them in the past decade. Minnesota State, Mankato, won the WCHA two years ago. St. Cloud State and Minnesota split the WCHA in 2013 – the final season of the “old” conference before those teams went to other conferences. And Minnesota Duluth won the last of its three WCHA titles in 1993. Incidentally that was the last time the Bulldogs – still ranked #1 in the nation – won a conference regular season title.
–If you like even numbers, Jason Zucker has got to have you frustrated lately. The Wild forward has been stuck with 99 career points for more than a week now, needing just one assist or goal to hit triple digits. The only Las Vegas native in the NHL, Zucker was surely being watched and noted on Thursday when Vegas Golden Knights general manager George McPhee was at Xcel Energy Center, doing scouting work for the expansion and entry drafts in June, when the roster for Nevada’s first entry into the NHL will be put together.
–Congrats to Harvard, which has two Minnesotans on the roster, for winning the Beanpot on Monday, beating Boston University 6-3 in the finale. It’s the first title in the Beanpot – the annual four-team tournament to determine college hockey bragging rights in Boston – for the Crimson since 1993.
–Lots of Minnesota Duluth connections this week when the 10 finalists for the Mr. Hockey Award were announced. Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin’s son Ryan, a forward for Hermantown, was one of them, although he’s committed to Minnesota State. Three more of the finalists – Holy Family defenseman Matt Anderson, Stillwater forward Noah Cates and Hermantown defenseman Dylan Samberg – are all future Bulldogs. Although it’s a future Gopher, Eden Prairie star forward Casey Mittlestadt, who many consider the favorite to win the trophy.
–Three years after T.J. Oshie’s shootout heroics for Team USA at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, NBC Sports Network will air a 30-minute short film about the northern Minnesota hockey culture in Warroad, which was known as “Hockeytown USA” for decades before Detroit co-opted the nickname, and produced Oshie and a handful of other NHL and Olympic stars. “The Road Through Warroad” airs on Sunday night at 11 p.m. CT.