John Chayka is a hard man to find. Soon the Coyotes general manager will be spotted in the last row of the lower bowl at Newark’s Prudential Center, sitting at the top of a tall flight of stairs, wearing a black dress shirt that camouflages into an equally dark concourse partition. For now, when asked if he has time to chat during a recent morning skate, Chayka texts these directions to his hiding spot: “Sure. I’m in the corner behind Kuemper.”
It was Mr. Darcy who famously (and rather pompously) proposed to Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice with these words: “You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.” Chances are that hockey fans around greater Phoenix feel the same way while watching their goalie—absent, one assumes, all the classist British airs.
Since replacing injured starter Antti Raanta in mid-December, career backup Darcy Kuemper has lifted the Coyotes into playoff contention with a .924 save percentage and 2.32 goals against average over 40 games, all while shouldering more total ice time than any NHL netminder besides Minnesota’s Devan Dubnyk. His full-season figures in those categories also rank in the top 10 league-wide.
For Chayka, the hot streak traces back to a meeting held in his office with Kuemper and goalie coach Corey Schwab, a week or so after Kuemper inherited the No. 1 role. It wasn’t that Kuemper was especially struggling to handle the assignment, but still Chayka felt that Kuemper was “more nervous than excited about it.
"I needed to reset him and let him know that we needed to ride him and needed him to be our guy,” Chayka continues. “It was the opportunity of a lifetime, so embrace it. To his credit, he’s been lights out ever since.”
In a way, Kuemper’s run reflects the best-case scenario of the trade that brought him to Arizona in Feb. 2018. At the time he was sporting a .932 save percentage in 19 appearances with the Kings, but had never started more than 28 games across a single season. Seeking an upgrade behind Raanta, the Coyotes nonetheless projected Kuemper as someone whose strengths would specifically mesh well with the skaters in front of him.
“What are the variables that we’re good at eliminating, what are we going to give up?” Chayka says. “Some of it’s structure, some of it is constraints of our players. Then it’s putting him in that environment and seeing, hypothetically, how would he play in that system?
“And it was very positive, obviously. He’s not like a 22-year-old that’s got his first chance of taking a run with it. He had a run with it. He had success, then lost it, and now it’s his time to build it back up and grab it."
A few hours later, Kuemper and Coyotes file into the visiting locker room from the team bus. Someone switches on pregame music. The first song: “You Make My Dreams” by Hall and Oates. To a reporter writing about a backup goalie made good, it is a little on the nose.
A sixth-round pick of Minnesota in the 2009 draft, Kuemper has pedigree; he was named the 2011 WHL goaltender of the year with the Red Deer Rebels in his final junior hockey season. “I remember him getting a million shutouts that year,” says current Arizona backup Calvin Pickard, who was playing in the same league. (Kuemper actually had 13, but still.) “The last couple months, it’s been fun to have a front-row seat. He’s definitely been in the zone and he’s a big reason why we’re in the hunt.”
For Kuemper, the opportunity has been overdue. “I know for sure it’s the big motivating factor for him,” says Josh Saulnier, the Saskatoon-based trainer who oversees his summer workouts. “Whenever I asked about his contract talks, or who was giving interest in free agency, his No. 1 thing was just looking for a team that will actually give him an opportunity, someone who doesn’t have a locked-in starter.”
Kuemper never seized the Wild’s No. 1 role after turning pro, ushering them to a first-round win over Colorado in the ‘13-14 playoffs but losing the job to Devan Dubnyk the following season. The open market netted a one-year deal at $650,000 with the Kings, about as movable a contract as possible. Even so, Kuemper says inside the Coyotes locker room, “Getting here? It was a shock. But it was definitely exciting to come to a team that was so young and growing.”
Kuemper himself stopped growing at 6-foot-5, though he moves well for such a tall, lanky goalie. Saulnier reports that Kuemper performs change-of-direction drills as well as a wide receiver, which explains why Kuemper is often the top target whenever their group plays pickup football for fun. “Really good body control,” Saulnier says. “For a big guy with long levers, he’s super flexible.”
Beginning with Kings goalie coach Bill Ranford and continuing in Arizona alongside Schwab, though, Kuemper has worked to blend that athleticism with a more patient style of goaltending. “His size is an asset,” Schwab says. “But when he’s having the most success, he’s playing a calm game, where he’s in position. He’s able to react and make saves, or have his size used to his advantage and get hit with pucks. When he’s doing those things, he has good awareness.”
Schwab hails from Saskatchewan like Kuemper, though the goalie coach feels compelled to note that neither of their families farmed. Their connections run deeper: In the past Kuemper has worked with local Roydon Gunn, a former Islanders draft pick who started a goalie school in Kuemper’s hometown of Saskatoon. It just so happened that Schwab was coaching at the school only a few years before Kuemper arrived. “Initially it was easy to start making the connection, something in common to start developing that relationship,” says Schwab.
And like Kuemper, Schwab believed that the 28-year-old just needed a chance. It’s why he relayed a similar message as Chayka in their meeting: “We said, ‘This is the reason that we got you, reasons like this, here is the opportunity,’” Schwab recalls. “To his credit, he stepped up and took ownership. He said, ‘I want to be the guy. This is my team now.’”
That truth was confirmed throughout the Coyotes’ four-game road trip, four straight losses that ended with a weekend back-to-back swing in which Kuemper stopped 55 of 58 shots yet received all of one total goal of offensive support. Translation: The savior needs some help … though evidently not much. Back home in the desert on Tuesday night and making his 18th straight start, Kuemper recorded 31 saves in a 1-0 shutout win over fellow bubble club Chicago, pulling Arizona even with Colorado for the second wild card. A postseason berth would be the Coyotes’ first since ‘11-12, and what team wants to face a streaking goalie come springtime?
Not that you could sense the pressure by looking at Kuemper, whose wide smile is often visible behind his goalie mask during games. It is the same laid-back personality that leads him to the bench for small-talk with Pickard during most television timeouts. And what has made him such a popular attraction at Saulnier’s gym, where he holds no social qualms about mingling with middle-schoolers and, as Saulnier puts it, “the 45-year-old ladies.” And how, ultimately, he has helped Arizona weather its most critical stretch in a topsy-turvy Western Conference race.
“We’re a young team that’s growing together,” Kuemper says. “It’s been a fun ride.”