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The remaining goaltending matchups in the Stanley Cup playoffs are a reminder of two things:
- Goaltenders are incredibly difficult to evaluate as draft-eligible prospects.
- While the Coyotes have done a poor job of evaluating draft-eligible goalies, they have done a good job of evaluating up-and-coming goalies who are already in the NHL.
Let’s start with the first point as we marvel at the two former Coyotes goalies — Colorado’s Darcy Kuemper and Edmonton’s Mike Smith — who will lead their teams into the Western Conference Final, and the one who almost got his team to the Eastern Conference Final, Carolina’s Antti Raanta.
No NHL team drafted Raanta. The Chicago Blackhawks signed him to a one-year, entry-level contract as a free agent in 2013 after he won the Finnish championship with Ässät and was awarded both the Lasse Oksanen Trophy for the SM-liiga’s best regular-season player, and the Jari Kurri Trophy as the best player in the playoffs, posting a .955 save percentage.
Kuemper was a Minnesota Wild sixth-round pick (No. 161); the 16th goaltender chosen in the 2009 NHL Draft after a decent but not spectacular season with Red Deer in which he finished 18th in the Western Hockey League with an .898 save percentage. A sampling of the goalies selected ahead of Kuemper includes: Mikko Koskinen, Igor Bobkov, Matt Hackett, Adam Morrison, Mike Lee, Kieran Millan, Olivier Roy, Scott Stajcer, Nicola Riopel, Michael Zador and Brandon Maxwell. How many of those names do you know?
Smith was a Dallas Stars fifth-round pick (No. 161); the 21st goalie chosen in the 2001 NHL Draft after a good season with Kingston of the OHL in which he finished seventh in save percentage at .919. A sampling of the goalies selected ahead of Smith includes: Pascal Leclaire, Jason Bacashihua (whom the Stars took in the first round), Adam Munro, Andrei Medvedev, Tuomas Nissinen, Dmitri Pätzold, Rob Zepp, Dušan Salfický, Bernd Brückler, Terry Denike and Roman Málek. How many of those names do you know?
If the NHL Draft is a crapshoot, then drafting goalies is a game of Keno. The odds are long that teams will ever see any return on their investment, and you never know which round will produce one. Perhaps that is why most teams now shy away from drafting goalies in the high rounds. No team wants to pick the next Rick DiPietro and come under ridicule.
Of the four starting goalies in the conference finals, Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy is the only one who was a high draft pick. Tampa selected him 19th overall in 2012. New York’s Igor Shesterkin, who had an otherworldly season and will likely win the Vezina Trophy, was a late fourth-round selection (No. 118) in 2014.
It’s often better to spend a later pick on a goalie and see if you can develop them away from the pressure of a high pick. Or, in the case of the Coyotes, snatch a goalie from another team as they have done multiple times in the past.
They acquired Sean Burke in a trade in 1999 and he led them to two playoff berths (2000, 2002) while finishing third in Vezina Trophy voting in 2002, and fourth in Hart Trophy voting that same season.
They claimed Ilya Bryzgalov off waivers from Anaheim in 2007. He also led them to two playoff berths (2009, 2010) while finishing second in Vezina Trophy voting in 2010, and fifth in Hart Trophy voting that same season.
The Coyotes signed Smith as a free agent in 2011 to replace the departed Bryzgalov. He led them to the 2012 Western Conference Final while finishing fourth in Vezina Trophy voting and posting a .944 save percentage in the playoffs and a league-best 13.34 goals saved above average.
The Coyotes acquired Raanta from the New York Rangers at the 2017 NHL Draft. In 104 games with Arizona, he posted a 2.57 goals against average and a .921 save percentage.
The Coyotes acquired Kuemper in a 2018 trade with the LA Kings. He led them to a playoff berth (2020) while posting a 2.43 goals against average and a .920 save percentage in 121 games with Arizona.
As you ponder the upcoming draft and the future of Ivan Prosvetov, consider this recurring theme. In the meantime, here’s a look at the two former Coyotes goalies still in action in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the guy who almost got there, if not for that familiar Achilles heel.
Playing at a high level has never really been a problem for Antti Raanta. The numbers from his Arizona tenure are actually slightly better than Darcy Kuemper’s Arizona numbers. It’s the health part that hasn’t kept pace.
When the Coyotes acquired Raanta and Derek Stepan from the New York Rangers before the 2017 NHL Draft in Chicago, in exchange for defenseman Anthony DeAngelo and the seventh overall pick (Lias Andersson), they did so with the belief that Raanta could become a starting goalie after successful backup stints in Chicago and New York.
Maybe his slighter body couldn’t handle the workload. Maybe he just had bad luck. Maybe his preparation — mental and physical — wasn’t up to snuff. Whatever the reason, Raanta couldn’t stay healthy long enough to earn the trust of his coaches and earn the starting job that Kuemper eventually wrested from him.
When starter Federik Andersen sustained a left-leg injury late in the season, Raanta got another crack at it and he ran with it, ranking among the league’s playoff leaders in goals against average, save percentage, goals saved above average and quality starts.
“That’s pretty much the goal when you play hockey; you want to play these games,” Raanta said. “I’m really excited, but at the same time you just try to focus on the right things and don’t get too excited so you don’t start overplaying things.”
Unfortunately for Raanta, his run came to an end in familiar fashion on Monday in Game 7 of an Eastern Conference semifinal against New York. He suffered a lower-body injury while moving across the net in the second period with his team already down 2-0.
Raanta, 33, will be a free agent in another year. He has proven that he can be effective with a limited workload. It’s just a shame that for one of the league’s nicest guys, he wasn’t ever able to seize his real dream.
Darcy Kuemper knew the deal when he arrived in Denver. He wasn’t there to play well and earn individual accolades. He was there to win a Cup and anything less would be considered a failure on a team built to win right now.
The Avalanche unexpectedly lost Philipp Grubauer to Seattle last summer and Coyotes GM Bill Armstrong exacted a high price for Kuemper, but let’s be blunt: Grubauer was never going to lead the Avs to the Cup. His flaws were exposed en masse this season with the Kraken.
Kuemper is a fantastic story in that he rebuilt his game and his confidence after flaming out with the team that drafted him. Kings goalie coach Bill Ranford gave him the physical tools while former Arizona GM John Chayka and coach Rick Tocchet gave him the opportunity.
“It was a fresh start,” he said. “I had been in the same role for a long time in Minnesota and it gave me the chance to work with new people and try new things. I had a great relationship with Billy and he really helped my game. He was able to break down things that made success come easier and things that made it more difficult.
“I used to get really focused on the puck and lose what was going on in other areas of the ice. I think that is part of slowing the game down, making better reads. You get a better feel for where guys are and the plays they are going to make. When you have that little bit of anticipation you can get there a lot quicker and under a lot more control.”
Kuemper emerged as an elite NHL goaltender in his three-plus seasons in Arizona, but the only way that he will cement that status will be to perform on hockey’s biggest stage. Thus far, he has been decidedly average, which may be enough in the early rounds, but likely won’t be in the latter stages of the postseason against the likes of Connor McDavid.
“It’s a fun challenge for sure,” Kuemper said. “He’s an electric, dynamic player. He’s creating every time on the ice.
“You want to face the best players in the world and I’m looking forward to it.”
Kuemper, 32, will also be a free agent this summer. What he does over the next few weeks will play a major role in his next contract; in Colorado or elsewhere.
Mike Smith has never been able to replicate that miraculous 2012 run when he heated up in February and never cooled off until the eventual Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings had eliminated the Coyotes in the Western Conference Final. The Coyotes traded Smith to Calgary during a tumultuous summer of 2017 in order to reallocate payroll to other areas. He spent two seasons with the Flames before signing back-to-back one-year deals with the Oilers and then signing a two-year contract last summer.
Smith, 40, isn’t supposed to be a starter at this stage of his career. He has played just 60 games combined over the past two regular seasons. The Oilers tried to sign free agent Jacob Markström but the Calgary Flames got him instead. They tried to get Marc-André Fleury but he wanted no part of Edmonton. And in a twist of irony, the Oilers tried to acquire Kuemper from the Coyotes last summer only to finish second to the Avalanche’s superior trade offer.
It was clear that Mikko Koskinen had fallen out of favor with previous coach Dave Tippett and when the playoffs dawned, new coach Jay Woodcroft decided that Smith was the better option after a strong finish to the regular season.
Smith turned in a stinker in Game 1 against the LA Kings in the first round, and he has allowed bad goals and turned in subpar performances in this postseason, but experience has allowed him to bounce back each time.
“It’s about staying the course and not letting games like that affect you mentally and physically,” Smith said after that Game-1 loss. “This is about as good as I’ve felt all season long. It’s getting the job done when you get the opportunity.
“I want to go out there and be the backbone, help this team stay calm and show that with my play. I wasn’t very good earlier in my career (at rebounding), which is why I probably bounced around a bit. Experience helps. You can’t take back what happened in the past. I could sit here and boo-hoo myself, but there’s nothing I can do about it now. I have to think about what happens next.”
Smith will face his greatest challenge yet in the Western Conference Final when the Cup-favorite Avalanche comes calling. Either way and assuming health, one former Coyotes goalie will be moving on to the Stanley Cup Final. What a storyline that will be for locals.
Reporters Walt Ruff, Mark Spector and Jesse Montaño contributed to this report.