As the Denver street sweepers continue to remove confetti from the parade route traveled by the Stanley Cup-winning Colorado Avalanche on Thursday, and as the players start their rotation of turns with the Cup, Colorado’s executive vice president and general manager, Joe Sakic, turns the page and begins the plan for the 2022-23 season. Sakic, who has been lauded as a brilliant architect of the 2022 championship team, and who also won the Stanley Cup as the Avalanche team captain in 1996 and 2001, will have his hands full.
The Avalanche have 10 unrestricted free agents (UFA) and two restricted free agents (RFA) heading into this offseason. The list includes several names who were key contributors during Colorado’s playoff run, including Nazem Kadri, Valeri Nichushkin, Andre Burakovsky, Josh Manson, and Artturi Lehkonen. But no name is bigger, and more impactful to the team than goaltender Darcy Kuemper. Kuemper becomes a UFA when the NHL’s free agency period opens on July 13.
Kuemper, who earned $3.5 million this past season, showed flashes of brilliance during the regular season and postseason, but also looked, at times, like a very pedestrian goaltender. Combine that inconsistency with an injury prone profile, and it’s not a slam dunk that Sakic will bring him back at what will almost certainly be a higher price tag and a longer-term deal.
Evaluating Kuemper’s Season
Kuemper’s regular season and playoff numbers were better than respectable. He went 37-12-4 with a 2.54 goals-against average (GAA) and .921 save percentage (SV%) in the regular season, and 10-4 with a 2.57 GAA and .902 SV% in the postseason. His GAA was fourth best among the 12 goaltenders who started at least seven games during the playoffs.
From Dec. 8 to Feb. 19 this past season, Kuemper started 20 games, going 16-0-2 in that stretch — he was pulled early against the Maple Leafs on Jan. 10 after allowing three goals on eight shots, and left a game against the Minnesota Wild on Jan. 17 with an injury. At the time, his name started to creep into conversations about the Vezina Trophy.
But over the final six games of the season, Kuemper went 2-3-1 with a 3.67 GAA. It’s true that head coach Jared Bednar was resting key players, but it’s not unreasonable to expect a top-tier goaltender to pick the team up. Kuemper didn’t, and Colorado limped into the playoffs. While his postseason numbers were good enough to warrant a new contract, he let in more than his fair share of soft goals, notably two of the three goals in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
But still, when measuring a goaltender’s performance, it’s important to consider the whole as being greater than the sum of its parts. Kuemper’s 2021-22 campaign was one the league’s best among the 17 goalies who started at least 50 games. His 2.54 GAA was sixth best in the group, and his .921 SV% was fifth best.
The bigger question about Kuemper is his durability. He started 57 games this year for Colorado, the most he’s ever started in his career, and was still ranked only ninth in the league in games played. Over his career, he’s averaged just 27.2 starts per season and has started 50 or more games only twice in 11 seasons. As Kuemper will reasonably argue for a longer-term deal worth more money, it will be a large bet for Sakic to place on a player who has been off the ice more than on the ice.
Francouz a Better-Than-Average Backup
Standing 6-foot-0, weighing 179 pounds, and wearing his catching glove on his right hand, Pavel Francouz, Colorado’s backup netminder, does not fit the profile of a prototypical goalie. However, Francouz is not only battle tested, he’s shown he can get the job done. In many ways, he’s Sakic’s insurance policy.
Francouz, 32 years old, has appeared in 57 NHL contests since the 2018-19 season, starting 49 of them. He has a 39-14-5 record with a stellar 2.46 GAA and .921 SV% over that span. In this year’s postseason, he played in six games, starting four of them, and finishing with a 6-0 record, including a shutout against the Edmonton Oilers.
So, why not let Kuemper walk and promote Francouz to the No. 1 job full time? For an elite team looking to repeat, it would be a high-risk move. The largest number of games Francouz has started in a regular season is 31, and like Kuemper, he’s injury prone. It’s an open question as to whether or not Francouz could maintain a high level of play through an entire campaign, and the team is better served keeping him in an active backup role.
Francouz is under contract through the 2023-24 season at an average annual value (AAV) of $2 million. That’s a high price tag for a backup compared to some other teams — Brian Elliot of the Tampa Bay Lightning makes $900,000 to sit on the bench and watch Vasilevskiy play — but Francouz has shown he’s worth it. Knowing he can step in if needed, gives Sakic more options.
Free Agent Goaltenders Going on the Market
While there are a number of journeymen goaltenders hitting the market as UFAs, there are three free agent options that stand out against the rest of the field should Sakic elect to let Kuemper walk.
First is Marc-Andre Fleury. The future Hall of Famer has been on the move recently. After winning the Vezina Trophy for best goaltender in the 2020-21 season, he was promptly traded from the Vegas Golden Knights to the Chicago Blackhawks. The Blackhawks, something of a dumpster fire in the 2021-22 season, then moved Fleury to the Minnesota Wild at the trade deadline (from ‘Blackhawks’ loss to Sabres finally ends miserable, humiliating season’ Chicago Sun Times, April 29, 2022).
The Sorel, Quebec, native has an impressive resume. He is one of only three goaltenders to be selected as the first-overall pick in the NHL Draft (he was taken by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2003 Draft), and is by far the most accomplished of that group. Fleury’s 520 career wins are third-best all-time, trailing only Martin Brodeur and Patrick Roy, and he has three Stanley Cups to his credit, all with the Penguins.
But Fleury is 37 years old. His play with the Wild, in their first-round series against the St. Louis Blues this year, wasn’t exactly a train wreck, but it wasn’t the stuff of legend, either. He went 2-3 against St. Louis, allowing four goals in three of those five games. That said, he could be a one-year solution for Sakic, giving the general manager time to further develop goaltending talent with Colorado’s minor league affiliates or find another solution on the open market. Given his age, Fleury would likely take a reasonable contract with a top team to have one more shot at winning a Stanley Cup. As noted above, Sakic has the insurance policy of Francouz to give a veteran like Fleury plenty of time to rest. The downside is that this is only a short-term solution. If Sakic is thinking longer term, which is likely, Fleury probably won’t be on his radar.
Jack Campbell started the 2021-22 season like a man possessed. In the first three months of the season, he notched a 15-5-2 record, a 1.94 GAA and a league leading .937 SV%. He looked like he was on the way to a Vezina Trophy and a chance to lead his Toronto Maple Leafs on a deep playoff run.
Campbell came back to Earth after the New Year. He had a respectable 16-4-4 and record, but his GAA swelled to 3.27 and his SV% plummeted to .893. He started all seven of the Maple Leafs’ Round 1 games against the Lightning and put in a lackluster performance.
Campbell has made his desire to stay and win in Toronto known, but the club still has Petr Mrazek under contract at an AAV off $3.8 million. In effort to free cap space, the Maple Leafs might not be in a position to give Campbell a $3 million (or more) raise — Campbell made $1.65 million this past year — which might provide an opportunity to Sakic and the Avalanche.
Last on this list is Ville Husso. Having been the St. Louis Blues’ on-again, off-again starter, swapping places in the regular season and postseason with Jordan Binnington, Husso has shown real talent in his short career. The 27-year-old former fourth-round draft pick went 25-7-6 in 38 starts for the Blues in the regular season, tallying an impressive 2.56 GAA and .919 SV%. The Helsinki, Finland, native, who was making $1.5 million last year, has tremendous upside, and given a poor showing in the playoffs, might come at a lower price tag, allowing Sakic to pour money into other key players.
As is the case every offseason, interest in capable, game-ready goaltenders will be high, so Sakic will have plenty of competition should he attempt to answer the Avalanche’s goaltending questions on the free agent market.
Acquiring a Goaltender on the Trade Market
Sakic could also look to the trade market to find the team’s 2022-23 goalie. There are a number teams in rebuilding mode that might be willing to part with a frontline goaltender. Case in point, the Anaheim Ducks.
John Gibson, Anaheim’s well-regarded netminder, is 28 years old, and has six years left on his contract at an AAV of $6.8 million. It’s a high price tag, but on a team with Colorado’s skill and depth, he could be the long-term answer Sakic seeks.
After leading the Montreal Canadiens to the Stanley Cup Final in 2021, Carey Price, who was the best goaltender in those playoffs not named Vasilevskiy, missed all but four games of the 2021-22 season. A serious knee injury, along with substance abuse and mental health issues, derailed the once great goaltender.
His knee continues to be a real question. He was quoted recently as saying he didn’t think he could handle the workload of a full season on the knee as it currently stands. Add to that a contract with an AAV of $10.5 million, and it’s hard to make a case he could or should come to Colorado.
But if the knee is deemed healthy at any point over this summer, the idea would at least be worth entertaining. Sakic and coach Jared Bednar have built not only a winning culture in Colorado, but a culture in which players have shown the ability to grown and flourish. One need look no further than reclamation project Valeri Nichushkin, and Nazem Kadri’s one-season career overhaul. Maybe Colorado will be just what the doctor ordered for Price.
If the Canadiens, who are rebuilding, would eat some of his salary, a combination of draft picks, prospects, and maybe a player like Avalanche defenseman Samuel Girard, could get such a deal done. Again, there are probably too many big questions to answer (notably about health), but it’s a fun one to contemplate.
The more immediate question is, if Sakic wants to acquire a goalie on the trade market, what pieces is he actually willing to move? He still has first-round draft picks in 2023 and 2024 (he traded his first-round pick in 2022 to get Kuemper), and a third-round pick in 2023. But will he part with that draft capital to secure the services of a proven netminder? Maybe. Sakic has shown time and again his willingness to wheel and deal if he can find the right player to fit his system.
Waiting in the Wings
Colorado’s No.1 minor league goaltender, who was on the postseason roster and dressed in the games Kuemper missed due to injury, is Justus Annunen. The Kempele, Finland, native performed adequately in the American Hockey League (AHL) with the Colorado Eagles, notching a 3.01 GAA and a .893 SV%. He had only two NHL starts this past season, both against weak teams (the Philadelphia Flyers and the Ottawa Senators) and neither one went especially well.
It would seem to be a stretch at this point to consider Annunen for anything other than emergency starts with the Avalanche. He might be more useful to Sakic as trade bait for a team looking for backup goaltending.
The Best Path Forward
Kuemper has shown himself to be a capable, though perhaps not spectacular, goaltender, and obviously was good enough to help his team win a Stanley Cup. But questions about his durability, combined with the price he’s likely going to demand, make him a question mark at best.
If you were Sakic, would you spend $5 or $6 million per season on Kuemper? Or would you rather spend it on Campbell? Would you part with multiple draft picks, including first-round picks, to snag a Gibson or a Price? Or maybe you’d give Annunen his shot, knowing you have Francouz to pick up the pieces.
To this writer, the best path forward is to effusively thank Kuemper for helping deliver the Cup to Colorado, and then find another goalie elsewhere. Having started more than 50 games only twice in his career, Kuemper is too much of a gamble for a long-term investment. The top two targets should be Campbell on the free agent market, or Gibson via trade. Whatever the path, expect Sakic to move quickly on goaltending to clear the deck to address the myriad other questions facing his team.