With 2 starting goalies, Coyotes have a luxury for 2019-20 season
GLENDALE, Ariz. — It was a few months back that Darcy Kuemper, the Coyotes goalie who had never started more than 28 games in a season before, decided he wanted to step his game up.
“He looked at himself in the mirror and didn’t like the way he was playing, he didn’t like anything about his game, and he said, ‘I’ve got to be better,'” head coach Rick Tocchet said. “And from that day on, he was just a different goalie, a different person.”
If that transformation was the reason for Kuemper’s success in the 2018-19 season, then it was a big reason the Coyotes got as close as they’ve gotten in years to making the playoffs. They finished four points out of a playoff spot as Kuemper — who entered the year as the backup — started a career-high 55 games, had a .925 save percentage and was unanimously voted by the media as the MVP of the team.
But with Antti Raanta injured for most of this season and the assumption that he’ll be back ready to go next year, the Coyotes have a puzzle to solve: What do they do with two starting goalies?
“I mean, I think that’ll evolve. You look at the Islanders, they basically had two starting goalies this year, and that’s a big key to their success and why they went so far,” general manager John Chayka said.
“There are organizations that’ll go a decade without having one of the goalies that we have. We have two of them. I just think it’s a demanding position. Injuries occur. It’s something where we view it as an asset that they’re both great goalies, they’re both great people. If we have to go through a stage where they’re splitting time or there’s some sort of a cycle there, I think that’s a good problem to have.”
Indeed, the New York Islanders had a goaltending tandem of Robin Lehner and former Coyotes netminder Thomas Greiss this season. Lehner made 43 starts and Greiss made 39, and the two posted .930 and .927 save percentages, respectively. The Islanders made the playoffs this year for the first time since 2015-16, despite losing their best player last offseason in John Tavares.
Maybe the two-starter system is the answer to the Coyotes’ goalie “problem” next year.
“Yeah, we’re going to have two really good goalies, and you know, I want to have the same approach; that I want to play as much as I can,” Kuemper said. “I know I’m going to have to earn it, so I’m going to have a big summer and keep working on my game, keep improving. And I’ll come in with the mentality that we’re going to push each other, and we’re both going to want the net, and it’s going to be a good competition for the team.”
Tocchet and Chayka reiterated multiple times that it wasn’t at all a problem or inefficiency that the Coyotes have two goalies that appear capable of being a No. 1 for a full season.
Even if that means Kuemper doesn’t get to start as many games next year as he did this year.
“I’m a competition guy. Like hey, listen, if you’re confident in yourself and you continue to grow and play the way you do, you’re going to play,” Tocchet said. “That sorts itself out. Nobody’s been given a job next year. All you’re given is an opportunity. Hopefully you take that opportunity and take it to a new level, and obviously ‘Kuemps’ did a great job. He’s given himself an opportunity to come in next year in the same situation — to play and start.”
Some may lobby for the Coyotes to trade one of their two goalies to improve their team elsewhere on the ice, but it doesn’t sound like that’s the direction the team wants to take things for now — and for good reason.
Aside from competition bringing the best out of each netminder, there’s also the reality that Raanta has played just 58 games in his first two seasons with the Coyotes, the first team with which he’s been given the No. 1 goalie role. His 46 starts last year were a career high, but injuries have nonetheless limited him since the start of last season.
If another injury rears its head with Raanta, the Coyotes would have a formidable safety net in Kuemper.
That said, the Coyotes could theoretically keep Kuemper and trade Raanta, but that might not be wise for a few reasons. First, his limited playing time this season could mean his value isn’t what it was a year ago. Second, Raanta is a year removed from a .930 save percentage and Kuemper only has one season under his belt as a starter. And third, just like Kuemper would come in handy if Raanta suffered another injury, well, the inverse is true as well.
Like Chayka said, “Injuries occur.”
“Darcy, I think again, he had a great finish for us, proved that he’s capable of carrying the load,” Chayka said. “But as we look at, as an organization, how to build our team to win, ultimately, having two good goalies is a really good problem to have.”
Keep in mind, too, that Kuemper is a free agent after next season as Adin Hill is waiting in the wings. And maybe the Coyotes’ standing late next year changes the equation for how they deal with two goalies — only time will tell.
For now, Coyotes fans can rejoice that their favorite team has two capable starting goalies and a blue line that led the Coyotes to finish sixth in the NHL in fewest goals allowed per game and tied for first in penalty kill percentage.
“Obviously having those two guys come back is huge for this organization,” Tocchet said. “Because you can’t win unless you have good goaltending. It’s impossible to win in this league if you don’t have good goaltending, and goaltending depth.