BOCA RATON, Fla. -- When Minnesota Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher traded Matt Hackett at the NHL Trade Deadline last season, he was sending a signal to Darcy Kuemper that he would be the marquee goalie in the organization's developmental system and featured between the pipes with the Iowa Wild of the American Hockey League.
It's fair to say things have changed since then.
Less than a year after Fletcher dealt Hackett to the Buffalo Sabres, Kuemper is Minnesota's No. 1 goalie, facing the challenge of giving the team a chance to win every game he starts as they creep closer to a second straight trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"Over the last few seasons, Matt Hackett played more games than Darcy in the American League, and Darcy had to go to the ECHL and play overage as a junior," Fletcher told NHL.com. "He had never been our marquee guy in the developmental system. We really felt he needed that. He needed a year where he'd be a 40-50 game guy for his development, knowing fairly soon he'd challenge in Minnesota. Now, of course, the future came very quickly."
Kuemper has been tossed into the fire because Josh Harding re-engaged in his battle against multiple sclerosis and Niklas Backstrom sustained a season-ending abdominal injury. The good thing is Kuemper hasn't been burned yet.
Kuemper has allowed two or fewer goals in 11 of his 19 starts. He is 11-4-3 with a 2.32 goals-against average, .920 save percentage and two shutouts in 20 appearances.
"I give Darcy credit. Our team was struggling, Josh was ill, Niklas was battling through some injuries, we threw him in in a road game in L.A. [on Jan. 7], he made 39 saves and we won 2-1 in a shootout," Fletcher said. "From that point on he's given us a chance to win every game he's played and he's won a lot of them."
Fletcher, though, hesitated to say Kuemper is definitely the guy the Wild will ride into the playoffs. He acquired Ilya Bryzgalov before the NHL Trade Deadline last week to serve as Kuemper's backup. Fletcher doesn't appear ready to simply hand the keys to Kuemper just yet, not with the Wild scheduled to play their final 17 regular-season games over the next 35 days, including four sets of back-to-backs.
He said Kuemper has earned the right to play now, but young players in the NHL are only as good as their last game. Kuemper is no sure thing just yet.
"We'll see how things play out," Fletcher said. "We've got an incredibly compressed schedule. Clearly, we're going to need both of them (Kuemper and Bryzgalov) to win games. My sense is the coaches will go with the hot hand, but Darcy to this point has certainly earned the right to be strongly considered."
There are also no guarantees that Kuemper will continue to be the Wild's No. 1 next season even if he has a strong finish to this season. Harding and Backstrom are still under contract and are expected to be back in the fold unless Fletcher makes a move in the offseason.
Harding is the wild card because of MS, but Fletcher said he's hopeful that the goalie can be ready to go by at least the fall.
"Obviously, the longer it goes for this season, the more difficult it's going to be to expect him to come back and play, but Sept. 17 is the first day of training camp for next season, and if he isn't able to play this year, we're hopeful that he'll be able to come back in September healthy and prepared to play," Fletcher said. "But there is so much unpredictability there, and he's doing everything he can. Our first hope is that he gets to be healthy, but I know the way he played this year and how young he is, it would be really exciting to get him back and see what he can do."
Author: Dan Rosen | NHL.com Senior Writer