The Wraparound: Kuemper or Francouz for Avalanche in Game 4?

The Wraparound: Kuemper or Francouz for Avalanche in Game 4?
Andy Cross/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

The Wraparound is your look at the 2022 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs. We’ll break down Game 4 of the 2022 Stanley Cup Final, including the all-important television information.

After a 7-0 blowout loss in Game 2, the Lightning returned the favor, clobbering the Avalanche 6-2. Can Tampa Bay even up the series, or will the Avalanche bounce back and put the repeat champions on the brink?

• Aside from GM of the Year, the league handed out the remaining 2022 NHL Awards on Tuesday. Auston Matthews locked down the Hart Trophy and Ted Lindsay to complete quite the season, Igor Shesterkin won the Vezina, Cale Makar notched the Norris, and Moritz Seider captured the Calder.

• Coaches continue to lock down jobs around the NHL. Adam Gretz wonders if Peter DeBoer can lead the Stars to a quick turnaround. After turning the Oilers’ 2021-22 season around quickly, Jay Woodcroft received a contract extension.

In an ideal world, every contending team would be able to identify a rock-solid goalie they can count on during the playoffs.

In the real world … well, there aren’t a lot of goalies as reliable as Andrei Vasilevskiy. Many are most impressed by Vasilevskiy’s occasionally acrobatic saves, or the way he performs after a loss. For me, it’s just how often he’s reliable, and frequently elite. Vasilevskiy’s doubled any other goalie’s workload the past three postseasons (68 playoff games; Semyon Varlamov‘s second at 34) while being a regular season workhorse (157 regular season games since 2019-20, second only to Connor Hellebuyck‘s 169).

Truly, Vasilevskiy presents the Lightning with a rare (if not literally unique) luxury of reliably elite playoff goaltending.

The Avalanche do not enjoy that luxury.

[NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs 2022 schedule, TV info]

Now, let’s make this clear: the Avalanche haven’t been outright fools when it comes to goaltending. To an extent, they should be applauded for pragmatism. While other teams burn salary cap space reaching for elite goaltending (looking at you, Florida Panthers), the Avalanche aren’t forcing it.

For the most part, that’s worked out for them — even with some bad injury luck. Yet, as Game 4 approaches on Wednesday night (8 p.m. ET), they must ponder a choice between Darcy Kuemper and Pavel Francouz.

For whatever it’s worth, Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar didn’t reveal if he’s starting Darcy Kuemper or Pavel Francouz against the Lightning in Game 4.

Unfortunately, at the moment, it at least feels like there really isn’t a “good choice.” Instead, the vibes lean closer to picking your poison.

Let’s sort through the venom, then. Pavel Francouz vs. Darcy Kuemper: who should be the Avalanche starter for Game 4 of the 2022 Stanley Cup Final?

Pros and cons of starting Darcy Kuemper for Game 4

Here’s a take: the Avalanche made a reasonable bet in trading for Kuemper during the offseason.

Personally, I’d rather give up the equivalent of a trade deadline rental for a productive goalie instead of handing term to, say, Philipp Grubauer. In the grand scheme of things, it was the right move.

And, to an extent, it worked out. During the regular season, Kuemper generated 25.12 Goals Saved Above Average, the fourth-best mark in the NHL.

Really, Kuemper probably deserves more love as a legitimate(-looking?) starting goalie. His career regular-season save percentage is a strong .918, and his 2021-22 season number was even better at .921.

Contrarians will chalk that up to the team in front of him, yet Kuemper also generated some of his career-best dragging the lowly Coyotes to semi-credibility.

[Related: Avs defying the odds with playoff goaltending]

If the Lightning turn Game 4 (and more) into low-event hockey, there’s logic to the Avalanche hoping that Darcy Kuemper can just … somehow regain his previous form. After all, if the pace is slow and grinding, wouldn’t you prefer the 6-foot-5 goalie who checks many traditional boxes?

Unfortunately, Kuemper hasn’t looked so sharp for much of these playoffs. Look at his series-by-series numbers, and it’s clear this isn’t just a blip vs. the Bolts.

None of this is meant to condemn Kuemper, especially big-picture-wise. After all, it seems like his drop-off coincided with a scary eye injury. That doesn’t mean he’s struggling because of the injury. It may also boil down to getting knocked out of his rhythm.

But, either way, Kuemper looks vulnerable.

Francouz presents more of the unknown … maybe that’s not such a bad thing?

Importantly, note that the Avalanche haven’t received great goaltending during the 2022 Stanley Cup Final, even when they’ve beaten the Lightning.

Whether it’s Francouz or Kuemper, it sure feels like the best route to victory is just to make goaltending as irrelevant as possible.

But if they need some saves, Francouz’s gathering a consensus.

So far, both Francouz and Kuemper experienced ups and downs during the playoffs. In 13 playoff appearances this season, Kuemper’s managed a save percentage of .896. Francouz, meanwhile, generated a more palatable .896 mark in seven games (four of which were starts, six ended up being wins).

Broadly, each goalie has looked shaky at times. Yet Francouz instills at least a modicum of greater confidence.

Normally, I’d roll my eyes at a coach playing coy about announcing their starting goalie. No doubt, Bednar not revealing Francouz or Kuemper for Game 4 does inspire some of that feeling.

Yet, this is a case where such “gamesmanship” makes extra sense.

In a league where goalies are increasingly cookie cutter, Kuemper – Francouz are about as different as you can get.

  • Kuemper is the prototype, size-wise, listed at 6-foot-5. Francouz must rely more on athleticism, as he’s listed at 6-feet-tall. (Note: this doesn’t mean Kuemper lacks any athleticism, mind you.)
  • Kuemper’s also typical in catching with his left hand. Unlike the vast majority of contemporary NHL goalies, Pavel Francouz catches with his right hand.

Both goalies have posted sneaky-solid stats, at least when they’ve been able to play.

Injuries forced Francouz to miss all of the 2020-21 season. Overall, the 32-year-old’s only played in 57 NHL regular season games, yet he’s produced when healthy enough to play. Francouz sports an impressive .921 career save percentage, collecting almost 20 GSAA over those 57 games.

While it’s not the same as blanking NHL shooters, Francouz also put up sparkling overseas stats, including in the KHL.

[More on Nichushkin taking a star turn during playoffs, Cup Final]

So … the Avalanche set themselves up with relatively strong options in Francouz and Kuemper. At least to the degree that, by not risking too many resources on goaltending, they could focus on building to other strengths.

More often than not, the Avs could likely bring a goalie match closer to a “tie” than many might realize.

Again, though, the 2022 Stanley Cup Final may continue to intensify the mismatch between Andrei Vasilevskiy against Kuemper and/or Francouz.

Personally, I’d lean toward Francouz, even if it merely gives a different look. Colorado’s most important task is to shift the focus off goalies (or at least their goalies) entirely. Tampa Bay might not give them that option, though.

COLORADO AVALANCHE v. TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING (COL leads 2-1)

Game 1 – Avalanche 4, Lightning 3 (OT)
Game 2 – Avalanche 7, Lightning 0
Game 3 – Lightning 6, Avalanche 2
Game 4 – June 22: Avalanche at Lightning, 8 p.m. ET (ABC, ESPN+, SN, CBC, TVA Sports)
Game 5 – June 24: Lightning at Avalanche, 8 p.m. ET (ABC, ESPN+, SN, CBC, TVA Sports)
*Game 6 – June 26: Avalanche at Lightning, 8 p.m. ET (ABC, ESPN+, SN, CBC, TVA Sports)
*Game 7 – June 28: Lightning at Avalanche, 8 p.m. ET (ABC, ESPN+, SN, CBC, TVA Sports)

* – if necessary

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