Darcy Kuemper was an absolute steal for the Minnesota Wild.

Drafted 161st overall in 2009, the 6-foot-4 native of Saskatoon was once regarded as nothing more than a raw-skilled talent with a big frame and good athleticism.

Fast forward three-and-a-half years later, and now he’s a full-time AHL goaltender expected to push Matt Hackett for minutes in Houston.

During his three junior seasons in the Western Hockey League with Red Deer, Kuemper’s game evolved at a fantastic rate.

In 2008-09, he went 21-25-1-7 with a 2.96 goals-against average and .898 save percentage. In the 2009-10 season, he went 28-23-0-4 with a 2.73 GAA and .908 SV%. He also posted three shutouts in each of his first two seasons.

But in the 2010-11 season, Kuemper no longer flew under the radar. He went 45-12-5 with a 1.86 GAA and .933 SV%, and tossed a remarkable 13 shutouts in with his career-high 62 appearances. For his efforts, he was voted as the WHL’s Goalie of the Year and the WHL’s Player of the Year.

Last season was Darcy’s first in the pro ranks, and while it included a bunch of highs, it ended with one frustrating low.

The highs included his first month in the East Coast Hockey League with the Ontario Reign. He burst onto the scene by going 7-1-0 with a 1.74 GAA and .941 SV% (stopping 223 of 237 total shots). He earned the ECHL Goalie of the Week award for November 21-27 and was promptly recalled to Houston on November 29.

The recall was due in part to Dennis Endras‘ decision to play in Europe, but also due to the fact Darcy was clearly ready for the next level. Just a few weeks later, Matt Hackett was recalled to the Wild, and Kuemper continued his red-hot rookie season.

In a mere seven days, he went 2-0-2 in four starts, allowing just four goals on 134 shots. That was good enough for a .96 GAA, a .970 SV%, and the AHL Goalie of the Week award. He would finish December with a 3-1-3 record, one shutout, a 1.72 GAA and a .942 SV%.

His play not only impressed the Wild organization, it instilled a new sense of confidence in his own abilities.

“Going up to the pros, it’s a whole other level, so there’s a lot of unknowns,” Kuemper reflected. “So to come in and prove to myself that I could play up there, and do what I can at that level, was huge for my internal belief. Then I knew that nothing could hold me back, so I was really able to go out and play with confidence.”

Kuemper would play in 19 total games for Houston and post a 6-6-4 record before the low-point of his first pro campaign finally hit him like a ton of bricks. A serious shoulder injury in early-March ended his season prematurely, and it was later revealed the injury would require off-season surgery.

The rehab was extensive, forcing him to stay off the ice during the Wild’s development camp back in July.

But by the time Houston’s training camp started last Friday morning, Darcy was back, and he was stoked to begin his first full season in the AHL.

“Yeah it’s always an exciting time of year, getting back out there and seeing what the team is going to look like, and see how you feel out there,” Kuemper said with a huge smile. “Everyone’s a little sore the first day out, but it’s definitely fun.”

For a goalie, nothing is worse than the mental restlessness that comes with an upper body injury. Most of the body feels fine, but if you’re not cleared to play, there’s an awful lot of thinking and thumb-twiddling going on. Knowing it must have been a frustrating result to an otherwise wildly successful rookie season, Kuemper had to stay patient with his rehab.

“Yeah it definitely called for a long summer, but especially in the first month it started off really frustrating because there was not a whole lot I was allowed to do,” Kuemper said. “But it got to a point where I could see my progression, so it gave me a light at that end of the tunnel. I started to get excited to get back on the ice, and the whole time I was just trying to keep in the back of  my mind knowing what I was capable of, and knowing what the outcome would be, and knowing it would all be worth it in the end.”

With Kuemper’s game evolving at such an impressive rate, the key for him this season is to play as well as he can against the best talent possible. This is rarely a goalie’s choice, as depth charts force many prospects to play at a level below their true ability.

But things have worked out nicely for Darcy. Not only is Endras playing in Germany this season, but Johan Gustafsson is playing in Sweden, and Mike Brodeur is expected to fill a role in the ECHL with the Wild’s new affiliate, the Orlando Solar Bears.

With the depth chart working out in his favor, the timing is perfect; the competition Darcy will face in the AHL is better than ever before due to the influx of NHL talent stemming from the lockout.

“Yeah it’s going to be arguably the best league in the world, so it’s going to be a lot of fun whenever I get to play against the top guys,” Kuemper said. “It’s going to make for a really good league and there’s not going to be any easy nights. Every start is going to be a challenge, and I’m really excited for that.”

One obstacle Kuemper will face this season is dealing with the uncertainty of consistent playing time. During his three-year junior career, he was the “go-to guy” for the Rebels, playing in 55, 61, and 62 games respectively. But with Hackett expected to carry the starting role this season, Darcy will be challenged mentally to play at his best without the benefit of being in a rhythm.

Even if the workload is split 50-50, Kuemper might learn the hard way that winning at the higher levels isn’t as easy as it originally seemed.

But no matter what happens during his sophomore season, the most important thing for Darcy’s development is learning how to manage the highs and lows of healthy competition, and how to work as hard as possible to be mentally ready when he does get the call.

For most goalies in Kuemper’s situation, it’s often a lesson learned strictly through experience.

“It’s good for both of us because we both try to push each other. We both really respect each other and we support each other, but at the same time we know in the back of our minds that we have to earn everything we get,” Kuemper explained. “It pushes you through every drill, and every practice it always makes you play at your best, so it’s good in that regard.”

When it comes to comparing the two prospects, one advantage Kuemper has over Hackett is size. But there’s a stigma that exists regarding bigger goalies — many believe the bigger frame you have, the easier it is to stop pucks. That may true in some situations, but in a talented league like the AHL, there are many situations where big frames aren’t always an advantage.

“I mean, you want to use your size to play your angles and use what you have, right? But at the same time, you can’t just solely rely on it because players at this level are so good that being big isn’t enough,” Kuemper explained. “You still have to rely on quick feet and get your hands activated, and all that stuff. You still have to play the game with athleticism while playing with the foundation of using your size.”

For some, that perfect balance of relying on positioning and athleticism can be tough to achieve. Some goalies are naturally capable of finding that balance quickly, while other goalies have to work much harder to first understand what that balance truly means, and then staying patient in order to successfully implement it into their game.

It’s tough to say where Kuemper falls on that scale so soon in his AHL career, but knowing that achieving this balance is a process, at least he has quality support from Wild goalie coach Bob Mason.

“I’ve been able to work with him ever since I got drafted here and you just try to take advantage of every chance you get to be on the ice with him,” Kuemper said. “You’re always learning something new and it’s always helping your game. He really works on building around the base you already have, so you try to take advantage of these times like here in camp where he’s on the ice every day, and you just try to soak up as much as you can.”

It often gets lost in the midst of the competition, but first and foremost, the AHL is a league focused on development. As long as Kuemper soak up as much information as he can, both from Mason and his own experiences, his success won’t be judged by wins and losses.

It will be judged on how hard he works, and how quickly he can bounce back from bad performances.

Those are the lessons that ultimately transform a good goalie into a great goalie…and Kuemper definitely has the potential to be a great goalie.

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