The last 13 months have not been kind to Darcy Kuemper. The 25-year-old goalkeeper began last season as the Wild's starter, but started stuggling in November. He couldn't get his game back together, and the Wild were forced to make a trade for a starter, acquiring Devan Dubnyk. While Dubnyk's strong play benefitted the Wild, it was a setback for Kuemper. Once the Wild signed Dubnyk to a 6-year contract, Kuemper's status officially changed from "Goalie of the Future" to "Trade Bait". Furthermore, due to Dubnyk's ability and preference to handle a heavy workload, Kuemper's opportunities to get work vanished.
His first game of this season was encouraging, as he stopped 35 of 36 shots before losing to the LA Kings in overtime. The complete opposite was true in his second start. On the second game of a back-to-back, Kuemper allowed an early goal to the Jets and couldn't settle down, playing just 20:51 before getting pulled. The team lost confidence in Kuemper, and over the next 40 days he saw action in just one game.
But then Dubnyk tweaked his groin on the 5th, leaving a cold Kuemper to spell him in a 0-0 game. Kuemper had an easy night, having to make just 9 saves for a 3-0 win, and life has been good for Darcy since then. Maybe it's a spike in confidence, or maybe it's the Wild's tight defenses protecting him properly, but Kuemper's looked like the backup the Wild have needed. After last night's win over the Canucks, Kuemper is sitting at a .922 Sv%. What's more, if you remove play in 3-on-3 overtime from the equation, his Sv% is .934 over 8 games.
If Kuemper manages to keep up this performance, he will no doubt be a popular candidate to be moved via trade. After all, the thinking will go, Dubnyk is the Wild's starter for the foreseeable future, so Kuemper is expendable. For a team that needs help in other areas, why not trade him?
That temptation will be there, but the Wild still shouldn't be in a hurry to rush Kuemper out the door.
As we're seeing right now with Dubnyk having been on the shelf for the past week and a half, the Wild are going to need a solid backup goalie. Not only is Dubnyk going to get injured and need rest over the next 5+ years, he'll turn 30 in May, and be 35 by the time his deal expires. Anything's possible, but most likely, he's probably not going to be able to be a workhorse throughout the length of his contract. While the Wild should allow Dubnyk to handle the majority of the starts now, it still doesn't hurt to have a guy who can step into a timeshare situation when the time where he can't start 60+ games a season comes.
And as things stand right now, if anyone is going to be doing that for the Wild in the near future, it's Kuemper. The Wild don't have any other goalies in their system that are going to be able to handle a backup role for an NHL team. Their two most promising prospects in net are Ales Stezka and Kaapo Kähkönen, and both of them have yet to reach their 20th birthday. You can't say with any degree of confidence that they'll make it to the NHL, and if they do, they're years away from debuting.
It's possible that the Wild front office may not be eager to negotiate with Kuemper this offseason- Kuemper's drawn-out negotiations with the Wild in two separate instances- but as a Restricted Free Agent, the Wild control his rights. Unless he's willing to go play in the KHL or a European league, the Wild will dictate where Kuemper plays until he hits Unrestricted Free Agency status.
Money shouldn't be an issue with Kuemper, either. He only is making 1.25 million this season, and even if he gets a raise to 2 million, the Wild will only have $6.33 million invested in the goaltender position. To put that in context, over half the teams in the league are spending more than that on their goalies.
That's not to say that things can't change. If the Wild can land a solid backup in the offseason (an Antti Raanta, or a Jonas Enroth, for example) on the cheap, then sure, explore your options. If a team wants to give you a first-rounder or high-second for Kuemper at next year's draft, that's something you probably shouldn't pass up. But until circumstances change, a young, cheap backup netminder who can start when called upon is going to be extremely valuable to the Wild. If Kuemper keeps succeeding as Dubnyk's backup, why just give that asset away?