Glendale, Arizona - Darcy Kuemper started the 2018-19 season as Arizona's backup goalie, and finished it as the team's MVP.
"It was a lot of fun getting out there and playing consistently," said Kuemper, who inherited the starting job in late November after Antti Raanta suffered a season-ending, lower-body injury. "It's a lot more fun than sitting on the bench. I just want to keep building off of it, keep improving."
Kuemper thrived as the No. 1 goalie, especially after New Year's Day. He notched a 22-9-6 record in 37 games during that span, plus a 2.05 goals-against average and a .933 save percentage. No other NHL goalie started more games than Kuemper after Jan. 1. Overall, he set career-highs for games (55), wins (27) and shutouts (five).
"He was our backbone," center Derek Stepan said. "He was the reason why we continued to be right there in the hunt. It was incredibly impressive ... the way he took care of his body and the way he prepared. And the other thing was, when he got on the ice he just played. He was a gamer every single night. He competed hard and he didn't have many hiccups. I can't think of many (goals) that he probably wanted back."
Kuemper finished his season by starting 22 consecutive games, the second longest streak of its kind in franchise history. Nikolai Khabibulin started 42 in a row in 1996-97.
"Obviously I didn't expect Antti to go through what he went through," Kuemper said. "That kind of opened up the door to play a lot of games. But you know, I prepared to play as much as I could ... I've always wanted to be a starter. I would always accept my role, but at the same time not just be satisfied with being a backup. And I've always pushed myself to try and earn as much playing time as I can and get as much opportunity to play, and hopefully earn a starting role. So I think that mentality made the transition easier."
Kuemper's first few weeks as Raanta's replacement were not successful. Battling through a knee injury, he won just one of seven starts. But right around the flip of the calendar to 2019, he initiated a meeting with the coaching staff and vowed to take his game to another level.
"He looked at himself in the mirror and didn't like the way he was playing," Head Coach Rick Tocchet said. "He didn't like anything about his game, and he said, 'I've got to be better,' and from that day on he was just a different goalie, a different person."
Kuemper played his best when it mattered most. Facing Chicago, Colorado and Minnesota in the penultimate week of the regular season, Kuemper went 2-0-1 with two shutouts, a 0.65 goals-against average and .979 save percentage. The NHL noticed and named him its Third Star of the Week.
"He was unbelievable for us," captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson said. "We knew that he was a good goalie, but I think he really showed that he could be a No. 1."
Kuemper experienced a close call while tending net in the final week of the season when he was hit in the right eye by the stick blade of Los Angeles forward Trevor Lewis after Lewis scored a goal from in close.
"It was super scary, especially after seeing what happened to (Michael Grabner) this year," Kuemper said. "I couldn't help but kind of get flashbacks of that. But I got very fortunate."
Kuemper suffered a scratched cornea but played just 48 hours later and stopped 37 of 38 shots vs. Vegas in the team's final win of the season. Two days later, he volunteered to sit out the season finale vs. Winnipeg so backup Calvin Pickard, who watched Kuemper start every game since Feb. 18, could get some ice time.
Kuemper finished the season ranked first in goals-against average (2.33) and first in save percentage (.925) among the 14 goalies who played at least 55 games.
"It's a good step for his career," General Manager John Chayka said. "I know he's a guy that's hungry to keep doing it … He had a great finish for us and proved that he's capable of carrying the load."
The Coyotes will enter next season knowing they'll have a decision to make regarding the starting goalie position. Raanta and Kuemper both have proven they can handle the job.
"Having those two guys come back is huge for this organization," Tocchet said. "It's impossible to win in this league if you don't have good goaltending, and goaltending depth."
He added: "Nobody's been given a job next year ... It's something where we view it as an asset that they're both great goalies, they're both great people. If we have to go through a stage where they're splitting time or there's some sort of a cycle there, I think that's a good problem to have."