It’s early, but if you’re discussing front-runners for the 2020 Vezina Trophy, right now there’s no way to not have Arizona Coyotes goaltender Darcy Kuemper in the mix.
The 29-year-old Saskatoon native leads all NHL netminders who have made at least 15 starts with a .943 even strength save percentage this season. But if you ask Kuemper about individual honors like that or potentially finding his way to St. Louis for next month’s All-Star Game, he’ll give you the stock hockey player answer.
“I just basically try not to listen and just keep worrying about the team and our upcoming games and try to do my best to stay in the moment,” he told NBC Sports recently.
After five seasons as a backup with the Wild and a short stint with the Kings, Kuemper landed in Arizona in 2017-18, but his rise began after the calendar switched to 2019 and an injury to Antti Raanta opened the door for an increased workload with the Coyotes. He’s repaid head coach Rick Tocchet for the opportunity with play that’s resulted in a .946 ESSV% since Jan. 1, 2019, good for third-best in the NHL, putting him only behind Ben Bishop and Thomas Greiss in that category. His seven shutouts over that period are second only to Sergei Bobrovsky, who has eight.
We spoke with Kuemper recently about his reset mentality, goalie coach Corey Schwab’s influence, what makes this Coyotes team special, and more.
PHT: You and Antti have seen a lot of shots this season, but the guys in front are doing a good job of allow you both to actually see many of them. Is that a coaching thing from Tocchet or is that more communication between the goalies and the guys in front?
KUEMPER: “Tocc’s done a great job of making sure we’re comfortable defending. Not every game’s like that, but if there is a game where we’re spending a lot of time in our own end we don’t panic, we stay comfortable and stay within our system, and I think that’s what allows us to have a chance in those kind of games and be able to win in different ways.”
PHT: You’ve only lost in regulation in back-to-back starts twice this season. Where does that reset mentality come from and is that something you’ve had to add to your game as you’ve gotten older?
KUEMPER: “For me, it’s something that comes with experience and age, being able to move on from games and just try to keep that consistent approach each game regardless of what has been happening or happened the game before. I think as a group we’ve done a really good job of that, just having that consistent approach. Even when we win a couple in a row you don’t see us get too high and if we lose a couple we don’t get too low. We just try to keep the same attitude and come to each game with the same approach.”
PHT: As your workload has increased over the last two seasons have you made any changes to your off-ice prep to handle more minutes?
KUEMPER: “Honestly, I always try to train like I always want to play as many games as possible, so I always have trained and try to prepare to be ready for that kind of thing. It hasn’t been that hard of an adjustment. I feel like I was well-prepared for it and built to handle that sort of workload. We have a great training staff here with the Coyotes. They do a great job of helping me recover and working on any nicks I get along the way to make sure I’m feeling great out there every game.”
PHT: What kind of effect has [goalie coach] Corey [Schwab] had on you the last two seasons? What are the biggest areas of improvement he’s helped with in your game?
KUEMPER: “He’s really helped me with consistency and making it obvious and pointing out what I’m doing when I’m being successful and when things start to slip a little bit what’s in my game that’s causing that to happen. Just having those thinking points and knowing what you need to do to play well out there, and for him to do a great job of making those ingrained in me, that allows me to know what I have to do and things to focus on to just go out there and play every night and try to be as consistent as I can.”
PHT: What were those first conversations with him like last season, especially as things starting going for you after the new year? What areas did he see needed the most improvement?
KUEMPER: “It wasn’t more areas of improvement but more areas that I need to have in my game all the time. That’s being in control, I’m good when my feet are set. I start moving around or I start to get too aggressive, sometimes you lose a little bit of that control of the game. When I feel like I’m set and ready for that shots that’s when my game kind of slows down and everything steps off of that.”
PHT: Last season it seemed every other day saw a new injury. What were the lessons the team learned from that that’s helped this season?
KUEMPER: “It’s never easy having that many guys go out and key guys, but I think we learned as a group if we play our system and play structured and everyone’s on the same page that’s when we’re going to have success. To carry that into this year and have guys healthy, I think that’s why we’ve so far have had continued to grow and continued to take steps in becoming a better team.”
PHT: How is Tocchet different from any coach you’ve had in your NHL career?
KUEMPER: “I’ve been fortunate enough to have good coaches. He’s a real players coach being a player himself and having such a great career. He gets it from our standpoint. He’s really good at communicating from a player’s perspective of what we need to be doing out there and he also understands what we’re seeing out there and what we should be seeing.”
PHT: What’s something that people may not know about this team that’s made it so special through two months of the season?
KUEMPER: “Our depth is unbelievable. We have different guys contributing every night. That’s why I think we’ve been having such a good start is we’re not relying on one or two guys. If they get shut down then we’re in trouble. It’s different guys every night and everyone’s capable of contributing. It’s been a lot of fun just being part of a group like that.”
Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.