Solid goaltending is arguably the greatest need for a successful hockey franchise. The Wild has been fortunate to have consistently good goaltending during its 10-year history, and taking a look in the Wild’s cupboard of goaltending prospects, it shouldn’t have a problem keeping that essential standard in the years to come.
Two of the Wild’s best goaltending prospects were at this week’s Wild Development Camp. While they may play in different leagues for now, they’ll forever be linked and hope to climb the ranks of the Wild organization together.
In the third round of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, Minnesota used the 77th overall selection to nab goalie Matt Hackett
. Three rounds later, the Wild used its 161st overall selection to grab another keeper, Darcy Kuemper
. So began a journey of two prospects bonded by their position and draft date; players who’ve already found common ground even though they haven’t spent much time together in the same rink.
“We’re definitely friends,” said Kuemper. “Whenever we see each other in main camp or [at the NHL Prospects Tournament in] Traverse City, we hang out together and we get along really well. It’s just tough to keep in touch during the season because when you don’t play against each other, you don’t see each other.”
Beyond the commonality of both being 20-year-olds who play the same position on the ice, both Hackett and Kuemper had successful years as the top goalies for their respective teams in 2009-10.
In his fourth season in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), Hackett backstopped the Plymouth Whalers, finishing the regular season ranked third in the OHL in wins with a 33-18-1-2 record, fifth with a 2.62 goals-against average (GAA) and second with a .925 save percentage. The 6-foot-3, 170-pound native of London, Ontario, was honored as the OHL’s top goaltender of the month in March after going 5-2-1-0 with two shutouts, a 2.08 GAA and a .941 save percentage.
In his second season with the Red Deer Rebels of the Western Hockey League (WHL), Kuemper compiled a 28-23-0-4 record with a 2.73 GAA and a .908 save percentage during the regular season. The 6-foot-4, 201-pound native of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, played in 61 of Red Deer’s 72 games during the regular season and ranked fifth in the WHL in saves.
After signing an amateur tryout contract (ATO) with the Houston Aeros of the American Hockey League on March 31, Kuemper put up solid numbers, posting a 2-1-0 record with a 2.41 GAA in four games, surprising even himself with his play in the professional ranks.
“I wasn’t really sure how I’d do up [in Houston] because it was a leap,” Kuemper said. “When I got out on the ice it felt like another hockey game…I felt good out there and it was a good experience for me because I proved to myself that I could play at that level and it really built my confidence.”
The confidence Kuemper gained in Houston could be seen last week at Wild Development Camp. In his second stint at camp, he found it easier to focus on his performance on the ice.
“Last year I was here kind of just soaking it all in,” said Kuemper. “I didn’t really know what to expect; everything was a new experience. This year, it’s less of a mystery and more I know what to expect and I can just come out here and play my game and prove myself as a player. It’s a lot less of an experience and more of a development camp this year.”
Hackett agreed, saying he’s having an easier time at Development Camp since he knows what to expect this summer.
“You get on the ice and you do your work,” said Hackett. “You don’t have to worry about anything else. You’re not nervous for anything; you’re just ready to go to work.”
This fall, there will be a major difference between the netminders that have previously led such similar lives on the ice. Kuemper’s ATO means he will return to Red Deer for the upcoming season. Hackett, however, signed an entry-level contract with the Wild on March 16, marking the end to his junior career and an entrance to the professional ranks, where he is expected to play with the Aeros.
Hackett says he is ready for the jump to the pros because of his years of experience in the OHL, especially the workload he had last season in Plymouth, playing so many games and facing so many shots. He’s proud of the improvement in his fitness, noting that he’s physically ready for the challenge having gained 15 pounds this summer.
“I’ll be a rookie again, so I’ll start off as a backup probably and hopefully work my way up to a starter, if not next year, the year after,” said Hackett. “Everybody wants to be a starter, so, we’ll see what happens, but that’s definitely my goal.”
Unlike Hackett, Kuemper will remain in juniors as a veteran for Red Deer, looking to play with consistency in net and win a league title with his teammates.
While they may continue to play in different arenas this fall, Hackett and Kuemper are both working towards the same goal of playing in the NHL. And who knows? Down the road, they could very well reach that goal together, both wearing Wild jerseys and finally playing on the same team for more than a few days.