Once again, the Colorado Avalanche are the Showtime of the NHL. They were last year, though last season being what it was it doesn’t really count for evaluation/analytic purposes. But reverting back to an actual NHL schedule (or something closely resembling one) hasn’t slowed the Avs much. They picked up their 83rd and 84th point in the 54th game of the season last night in a comeback 5-3 win over the Islanders in Denver, with André Burakovsky netting the winner with seven minutes to go.
It was the Avs’ fourth win in a row, sixth in their last seven, eighth in their last 10, and 18th in their last 21 (four of those 18 wins have come after 60 minutes). In those 21 games they’ve outscored their opponents 70-43. They’re atop the NHL standings, have a 14-point lead in the Central Division, and only trail the Panthers in goals per game (while a Denver-Miami market matchup in the Final wouldn’t jump off the page as something the league offices would want, they must be salivating at the thought of the kind of hockey that would be on display should that happen).
They’ve done this with perennial MVP candidate/Jimmy Butler cosplayer Nathan MacKinnon missing 15 games. They have two defensemen, Cale Makar and Devon Toews, averaging a point per game. Nazem Kadri is on the ultimate contract drive, on pace for a 100+ point season. They have 10 guys with at least 10 goals so far, and if there are any questions about their scoring depth they are rumored to be leaders in the clubhouse in the Claude Giroux sweepstakes.
So yeah, it’s go time in Denver. Which makes it all the more worrying, with everything that is firmly in place, that it will all balance on the shoulders of Darcy Kuemper.
Yes, Kuemper has been fine this season. His .919 save percentage ranks 11th among goalies with 15 starts or more. His goals-saved-above-expected per 60 minutes ranks 8th, according to Moneypuck.com. He wasn’t especially bad last night, though he did his best to give the Isles the lead in the third until being bailed out on the goal line by Ryan Murray (the 4:10 mark of the video). And during this streak, Kuemper has three shutouts and three more games where he’s given up only one goal. That will certainly play.
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But still, this is Darcy Kuemper. The same Darcy Kuemper whose last run in a real playoff game as a starter was eight years ago (no, the bubble doesn’t count). Eight years ago he was good enough to overcome Patrick Roy’s paper tiger Avalanche team before getting hurt, but it’s hardly a track record. Darcy Kuemper, whose career revival took place in Arizona, with just about the lowest stakes possible. Darcy Kuemper, who even with his career revival still has a career save-percentage of .917, which is pretty pedestrian these days. And this is who the Avs want to be their latex salesman?
The Avs should know better, as they watched their Cup hopes last year piss away into the abyss thanks to Phillip Grubauer’s meltdown in the last three games against the Knights (along with Kadri’s yearly spring trip to the outhouse). Grubauer’s save percentage the last three games in that series, when the Avs were up 2-1, was .836. Grubs had never been really tested in the playoffs either, as his only experience came when he was hooked for Braden Holtby at the beginning of the Caps’ charge to the Cup in 2018.
You don’t know if a goalie can do it until he actually does it, and maybe Kuemper, behind the best team he’s ever been a part of by miles, will find this is his time. But the Avs aren’t guaranteed anything beyond this season. Kadri and Burakovsky are free agents after the season, and MacKinnon is due a huge extension in the season after that which will certainly gobble up enough cap space to keep the Avs from being flexible for a long while. This might be it for this kind of depth.
And the Avs aren’t so defensively tight that they can safely assume they can have just anyone in a mask in net and ask him to do the minimum for them to win. They’re middling when it comes to high-danger-chances-against per game, and their penalty-kill straight up blows. They’ll need big saves in April and May from a guy who quite frankly has never made them.
There’s still some questions on whether the Avs’ smallish defense can hold up against bigger teams that are as fast as them, or nearly, like the Knights (whom they could see in the first round but likely later), or the Blues, whom they’ll likely see in the second. And the Blues come with Ville Husso, having an incredible season. Can the Avs overcome that big of a difference in net if Husso can carry that over into the postseason?
Instead of lusting after Giroux to top off what they already have a bunch of, i.e. scoring, perhaps they should be placing calls and doing the math on how to get Marc-Andre Fleury into burgundy and into the salary cap. Because MacKinnon can only ban soda from the facilities so many times.