GLENDALE, Ariz. — If you’re waiting for the Arizona Coyotes to name a starting goaltender and choose decisively between Antti Raanta and Darcy Kuemper, you may not get the satisfaction you’re looking for. Of course, there’s not as much fun in that.
But there is evidence to back up the idea of blurring the lines between a starter and a backup goaltender. And Raanta, who has played strong when healthy, and Kuemper, who helped carry the Coyotes down the stretch last season, give Arizona two options in net heading into this year that the team feels good about.
“You know Antti’s deal. When he’s in there and he’s healthy, he’s a hell of a goalie,” head coach Rick Tocchet said. “Kuemps, was it 23 games straight last year? In tough buildings, tough games. Not too many goalies can do that. … So we have two guys that have a starter’s mentality.
“We’re lucky we have two capable guys that can go in there and do what they’ve done. So we’re excited about having the competition, and they’re excited about competing, too. In-house competition breeds success.”
From the sound of it two days into training camp, there will be a competition between Raanta and Kuemper. It just might not end before the season starts.
“It’s an open competition, for sure,” general manager John Chayka said. “I think it’s going to be every single night. I think both goalies are at a stage of their careers where we know they’re going to be good goaltenders, so it’s not necessarily about that. It’s about finding that right balance in terms of workload, but also making sure that every single night for 82 games, we’ve got a goalie in net that gives us a chance to win.”
From the 2000-01 to the 2017-18 seasons, the number of NHL goalies in any given season who started at least 30 games never surpassed 40. In 2018-19, it spiked to 44. Conversely, the number of goalies who started at least 50 games was last year was just 17, the second-lowest number this century (2005-06: 16 goalies).
That could be an indicator that more teams are having goalies share the load. The New York Islanders’ Robin Lehner, for example, started 43 games last year. Thomas Greiss, their other goalie, started 39.
“Looking at different teams over the last couple years, there have been goalies who have been successful or teams who have been successful with two guys playing,” Coyotes goaltending coach Corey Schwab said. “Not exactly equal, [but] the Islanders were pretty close to equal. But you look at Dallas, you look at Boston, teams that have had success with both of their guys being a big part of their team.”
Schwab said the team doesn’t have a set formula for how it plans to use its two goalies. Instead, someone could play three games in a row and then they may take turns game-to-game. The benefit, he said, would be lightening the load for each goalie. Of course, health and performance both will be a factor in these decisions as the season goes on.
“I think it’s just you go day by day, and you see how things are going,” Raanta said. “We want to make the coach’s decision hard. We want to show that we both can play and we both can win the games. So I think it just more brings the fun part there. And also for the media, they always have to guess who’s starting, so it makes their job a little bit harder.
“But I think it’s going to be a fun battle.”
KUEMPER BACK FROM A BIG SEASON
With Raanta out due to injury last year, Kuemper set career-bests in save percentage (.925) and goals against average (2.33). He finished fifth in the Vezina Trophy voting and 22nd in Hart Trophy (MVP) voting. Kuemper started 55 games, finishing tied for the best save percentage in the NHL among players who started at least 50 games.
“I always believed that I could do it, but it’s another thing to actually do it, that I could handle the workload and kind of carry the weight of all those games,” Kuemper said. “Now that I know I can do it and I can be that guy, it’s just about going out there and playing with confidence.
“We got two really good goalies and that’s going to be good for our team. I’m just going to focus on when I’m in there, doing my best job and when Antti’s in there, I’m going to be cheering him and the team on as well.”
It was a breakout season for Kuemper, and a huge boost to the Coyotes, who saw their starter go down with an injury. Often times, that’s a crushing blow for a team. It didn’t seem to be that big of an issue for Arizona last year, and Kuemper was the reason why.
“Every single year I’ve been here, we’ve had key goalie injuries,” Chayka said. “Until last year, we didn’t have that depth to really sustain when a goalie went down and it hurt our seasons, quite frankly. Going into this season, I know that we have some depth there if there are injuries, our team can continue to grow and win games, and it’s an important thing for a team.”
Kuemper said if it does come to a situation where he and Raanta share the workload, he’ll just “control what he can control.” But he did acknowledge that teams having a goalie tandem is becoming more of a trend.
“Lots of teams are going to that and I can see the benefits from a team standpoint, have both guys going,” he said. “I want to play as much as I can. But that’s not my decision, so all I can do is focus on doing my job when I get called upon.”
Recency bias and the nebulous “injury prone” label may affect the narrative around Raanta, who has missed time with injuries in each of his first two seasons with Arizona.
But Schwab pointed out the unpredictable nature of injuries and that Raanta has followed the team’s instructions when it’s come to training and health.
“Number one, he’s done everything we’ve asked of him, as far as adjusting his workouts and everything he’s done,” Schwab said. “He’s come in, each year he’s in better shape than he was the year before, each year he’s put on muscle and he’s stronger, adjusted his training and his eating habits, everything about that. He’s done what we’ve asked.
“I think looking at last year, freak accident. How do you know? How do you know you’re going to end up in a certain position? And knees are tricky things. It’s not anything he could’ve done to prevent that. Time will tell as far as where he’s at.”
In the 2017-18 season, Raanta played 27 games after Jan. 1 and 16-6-4 with a stellar .942 save percentage.
“He put up Vezina-type numbers,” Schwab said. “So he played and he gave us a chance.”
Last year was a different story. Raanta played in only 12 games all season and didn’t play a game after Nov. 27. He had a .906 save percentage up to that point.
“It’s tough when you’re not playing,” Raanta said. “But it was great to see that Darcy just helped the team, and we was doing a really great job, so obviously you’re super happy for him and you want to see our team win, so it doesn’t really matter who’s in net. When the team is winning, everything’s good.”
A lot can change between the start of training camp and the start of the regular season; let alone the end of the regular season. But as it stood on day one of practices, the Coyotes had two options to look to for help in net. And they don’t seem to be overthinking it too much beyond that.
“[W]e’re confident in either guy,” Schwab said. “And however that plays out by the end of the year, who plays a certain amount of games. But I think both guys have shown when they’re healthy that they can play long stretches. It’s so hard to predict how the season’s going to play out, how each guy’s feeling, how are we doing as far as travel-wise.
“I think it’s a luxury that we have that we have two guys that the team’s confident in, either guy can step in.”