Andy Cross/The Denver Post
The Washington Capitals entered the 2022 offseason looking to redesign their goaltending, after the youthful tandem of Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek failed to produce a clear number one option. Making a splash in the free agent market, the team signed Stanley Cup-winning Darcy Kuemper from the Colorado Avalanche. As a big name acquisition, it is intended that the Washington goal-crease will perform better than it has the last two seasons.
After a decade of overall consistent, reliable play from Braden Holtby, the Caps turned the paint over to former draft picks Ilya Samsonov (22nd overall in 2015) and Vitek Vanecek (39th overall in 2014) after Holtby departed in free agency. After a rookie season with mixed results that saw Vanecek seemingly show promise of being the potential go-to for Head Coach Peter Laviolette, the duo’s inconsistent play in 2021-22 (a campaign following an offseason in which the Caps re-acquired Vanecek from the expansion Seattle Kraken) and the Caps’ subsequent first round playoff exit (for the fourth consecutive spring), the decision was made to start anew in net.
Which brings us to Kuemper, who along with new backup netminder Charlie Lindgren, will make up the Capitals’ new goaltending tandem. Coming off a Stanley Cup victory with the Colorado Avalanche, Kuemper signed a five-year, $26.25 million deal with Washington to become the team’s undisputed number one. So what can Washington expect from the 32-year old during the 2022-23 regular season?
A LOOK BACK
Before looking at the season ahead, it would be prudent to examine Kuemper’s numbers from the 2021-22 regular season. In 57 Games Played (57 starts), the Saskatoon, Saskatchewan native went 37-12-4, with a Goals-Against Average of 2.54, five shutouts, and a .921 Save Percentage.
As noted by NoVa Caps’ Harrison Brown earlier this month: “…At five-on-five, Kuemper earned a .928 save percentage, a 2.26 goals-against average, a 4.33 goals-saved above average, and a .863 high-danger save percentage. He also finished with an .879 save percentage and a 2.32 goals-saved above average on the penalty kill. Kuemper posted at least a .920 save percentage and a 2.56 goals-against at most in each of the last five seasons.”
THE WHOLE PICTURE
Originally drafted by the Minnesota Wild with the 161st overall pick in the NHL Entry Draft, Kuemper has a career record of 143-95-36, Goals-Against Average of 2.48, Save Percentage of .921, and a Quality Start Percentage (Quality Starts being measured as starts with a Save Percentage greater than the average save percentage on the year, or .885 in games with 20 or fewer shots against) of .564 (56.4%, with the league average being around 53% and 60% or more classified as good).
WHAT TO EXPECT
There is no doubt that Kuemper is an immediate and much-needed upgrade between the pipes for the Capitals and one that will hopefully give the team some stability going forward as they look to contend for another Stanley Cup in the closing seasons of the Alex Ovechkin era. Kuemper’s play has steadily improved over the past several seasons, with his Goal Differential trending positively and having only recorded one sub-.900 Save Percentage season in his career.
That being said, however, there needs to be a realistic set of expectations for the veteran netminder heading into his inaugural season in the District. Over the past year, Kuemper has played a lot of hockey, a combined 73 games between the regular season and postseason. Whether that workload has any impact to start 2022-23 remains to be seen, however it is certainly something to be mindful of going in.
Situationally, Kuemper has proven to be a solid performer in most situations, with a career .935 Save Percentage when it comes to having the man-advantage, and .922 mark at even-strength (he finished last season with a .923 even-strength Save Percentage). Kuemper’s .872 Save Percentage while shorthanded last season is .05 points lower than his career .877, however the defense in front of him will surely have some impact on these figures as well. In High Danger situations, Kuemper has also struggled since the statistic was first tracked in 2016-17, sporting a .847 Save Percentage.
Overall, Kuemper should be a significant boost for Head Coach Peter Laviolette. He has played 50 or more games just twice in his career (57 last season and 55 in 2018-19) and in parts of 10 seasons, has averaged around 30 Games Played and 28 starts in 10 seasons, however, he will likely see a significant uptick in those numbers as a de facto number one in Washington. In his two 50-plus games played seasons, Kuemper averaged 32 wins, which is likely around the number he could expect to record again (once more, dependent on his workload) following his 37-win campaign last season.
It is a reasonable expectation for the new ‘tender in town to perform markedly better than his predecessors over the course of the 2022-23 season (and beyond). While there may be an added pressure for Kuemper to play much better and more consistently than Vanecek and Samsonov, assuming that he will play on an elite, top-of-the-world level on a nightly basis (particularly following the amount of hockey he has played over the past year) is probably raising the bar a bit too high, even for a goalie coming off an impressive run to a Stanley Cup.
By Michael Fleetwood