Coming into the 2014-15 season there was plenty of cautious optimism surrounding the Minnesota Wild.
Optimism because they'd added goal-scorer Thomas Vanek and kept the offensive-minded Matt Dumba in an effort to bolster an offense that ranked 25th (199G) in scoring last season. A season where they progressed to the Western Conference Semi-Finals before bowing out to Chicago in a series where many thought the Wild out-played the 2013 Stanley Cup champs.
Caution because for all the improvements on offense, and confidence in Mike Yeo and his staff, there were still plenty of questions surrounding the Wild netminders.
Last season began with a spectacular run by G Josh Harding, who amassed an 18-7-3 record with a 1.65 GAA and a .933 SV% before having to step away to deal with complications from his Multiple Sclerosis treatments. Niklas Backstrom was more than talented enough to pick up the slack, but his history of injuries proved prescient, and he was forced out of the lineup.
That left Darcy Kuemper and the newly acquired Ilya Bryzgalov to carry the Wild through the post-season. And considering that the result was the Wild's deepest run since the 2002-03 Western Conference Finals team, you could say they were fairly successful.
So why the caution over the goaltending this season? Harding seemed to be healthy coming into camp, but the club couldn't be sure if or when an issue with his MS might surface. Darcy Kuemper was a restricted free-agent and was at loggerheads with management over a new contract. Backstrom was healthy, but no one could know for how long and Bryzgalov, while still available, was closer to the end of his career than to his prime.
But as so often happens in pro sports things sorted themselves out quickly enough.
Harding came up with a broken foot which the Wild would only say was from an “off-ice incident” and was suspended from the team. That forced Wild GM Chuck Fletcher to drop his demand for a two-way contract with Kuemper (which would've allowed the team to pay Darcy significantly less money if he'd been sent to AHL-Iowa) and sign him to a two-year, one-way deal that would pay him $2.5 million.
Backstrom, who successfully got through the preseason without injury, would battle with Kuemper for the starting job, and Bryzgalov, who'd been signed to a try-out contract for the preseason was “wished well in his future endeavors”.
But even with things seemingly falling into line, goaltending was still seen as a potential weakness for the Wild.
So far, Darcy Kuemper has done all anyone could ask to counter that line of thinking.
After Saturday night's 7-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning, Kuemper is now 4-1-0 with a 0.80 GAA and a .966 save percentage.
It took him just four games to set a new career high in shut-outs with three, a number which also happens to lead the NHL. In fact, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, he's just the second goalie since the 1967-68 season to record shutouts in three of his first four games – the other being the Blue Jackets Pascal Leclaire in 2007-08.
During that run, Kuemper also set a Wild franchise record for the longest shutout streak at 163 minutes and 46 seconds
For his part, Kuemper is giving the defense playing in front of him the bulk of the credit.
“I definitely feel good out there, feeling confident,” Kuemper said, “they're [the defense] allowing me to do that by the way they're playing and making my reads easy. I think right now we've just got a good chemistry going between me and the d-men, the forwards are helping us out too. We've got a good thing going right now.”
And there's certainly something to be said for that.
Ryan Suter is playing at the elite, “in the discussion for the Norris Trophy” level that Wild fans have come to expect from him. The Wild think so much of his partner Jonas Brodin that they just inked him to a six-year, $25 million dollar extension. And Jared Spurgeon is tied for second on the Wild with 5 points (2G, 3A) and leads the Wild in blocked shots with 22.
So Kuemper's not wrong to credit his defensemen. But even if he won't say it, it's clear he's having a stellar start to the year himself.
“He's playing unbelievable you know, he's making that first save,” defenseman Marco Scandella said, “we're trying to make him see more pucks and he's doing the job right now. He's a big presence.”
The Wild are just six games into an 82-game schedule, and much will change between now and the end of the regular season.
But so far, the early concerns about the Wild's goaltenders are being allayed, and if that continues, Minnesota will almost certainly be a factor in the Western Conference playoff picture.