Guest column: Kuemper deal seems better as the days pass
A guest column here from reader and Avs fan, Matthieu Tirrell:
By Matthieu Tirrell
What to make of the Grubauer-Kuemper situation? I’ve tossed and turned a lot on this one.
To be honest, I was a little bit shocked when I saw this trade as well. Why on earth would you trade that for Darcy Kuemper? Couldn’t you have found another goaltender that is younger with upside? Timmins was going to be a stud for the Avalanche, this move is ridiculous! I have been an Avalanche fan since I was 7 years old, I have not seen my team win the Cup as an adult (I was about 13 in 2001) and I am frankly sick of having these goalies that just can’t get the job done. I thought Grubauer was the answer and how dare Sakic not offer him longer term and more money even with the cap! How dare I think logically about this at all! Then, it hit me and I realized… Grubauer isn’t the guy/player I thought he was.
Let’s go backward from Grubauer’s last season in Colorado to his first, a whopping three years. A Vezina finalist 30-9-0-1, stellar 1.95 GAA and a .922Sv% – Facing just under 1,000 shots against at 993. These numbers were absolutely fantastic for any NHL goaltender but what bothers me the most is that these were his numbers during the regular season with a top 3 defense in front of him. What happened in the playoffs? 6-4-0 2.61 GAA .914Sv% – with that same defense. In 10 games, Grubauer allowed 26 goals, which would put him on pace to allow 104 goals against in the same 40 game span that he saw this season, where he allowed 77 goals. He also would have faced around 200 shots more at the same pace. You can argue that the team was not as defensively sound in the playoffs as they had been during the regular season. But how, with a similar defense, were his numbers in the playoffs so much better the year before? Where he was 7-5-0-1 with a 1.87 GAA and .922Sv% – because if you look at the playoffs in both 2020 and 2021, the team’s defense played fairly similar. When you also look at the playoff series against the Knights, the defense got better in front of Grubauer in terms of shots against, where he was peppered with around 120 shots in games 1-3, allowing 10 GA but only 47 in games 4-5 combined, allowing 8 GA.
Prior to his Vezina-worthy top 3 defense, Grubauer was slightly questionable as the starter for the Avalanche. 36-21-0-9 over 73 appearances in net – injuries though the 2019-2020 season that saw Francouz come into his own as a savior for the season. But numbers are not everything, the mindset of a goaltender can be a window to their season. Grubauer worked to get healthy and outside of Covid in 2020-2021, he was beyond exceptional. While over three seasons, Grubauer showed he was capable of being a starting keeper for a team, one good, Vezina-worthy season shouldn’t sell you on over-terming and overpaying for a goaltender. Sure, he won the Cup as a backup in Washington, but one great season, a great shouldn’t qualify you for an extensive contract.
When you look at his comment, “It was a no-brainer” for him to sign with Seattle, you see two things. One, it’s about the money. Two, it was always about the money.
Why would Sakic replace him with an injury-prone goaltender like Darcy Kuemper? When you look at the free agents that were available here is what I saw; every goaltender that was #1 worthy were all coming off of either Injury or struggling for several years with their previous team and have lost a lot of confidence, maybe keepers that are moving into a backup role as they begin their downward trend (insert Jones, call me crazy but I don’t see Jones being a #1 again unless there is an injury.) Andersen, injury. Mrazek, Injury (came back in playoffs). Rask, retiring? Holtby, can he find it again? Whatever happened to him? Why waste money on these situations? Arguments, well Kuemper is injury prone so what’s the difference? His numbers and clean bill of health seem to be the thing for me here.
Over the same three seasons that Grubauer was in Denver, Darcy was in Arizona. Though injured, Darcy still only played two fewer games during the regular season. Not by insane amounts, Kuemper had BETTER numbers combined over three years than Grubauer and that is with a defense that never broke the top ten! Where Colorado broke the top ten in at least two of those seasons. Kuemper faced around 800 more shots in three years, had a 2.35 GAA and .924 Sv% while Grubauer held a 2.38 GAA and a low .911Sv%.
See the chart below and you’ll see that from 2018-2021 the likelihood of scoring on Grubauer had much higher concentrations areas than Darcy Kuemper allowed.
Conor Timmins is going to have a stellar NHL career and it is going to start in Arizona where they are starting to build a young defense that will be great for a long time. Why would you want to give up a player with so much upside? Frankly, Colorado could not really afford to keep him with the cap that is set for the season. Even a 1-yr deal could cost a couple million and Sakic and the Avalanche just don’t have the cap room for that after resigning both Makar (far more important) and Landeskog to long-term deals. Mackinnon is also due a contract extension that will probably start talks after this season ends, as well as Burky and Kadri coming up at the end of the 2021-22 season. Colorado already trades Graves to ensure Donskoi was unloaded to Seattle and Arizona was in the market for a young defenseman that can eventually help fill the loss of OEL. Outside of cap space, Colorado doesn’t have the room for Conor to expand in his talent and would have left him in a position of not playing much. With Johnson returning, Makar, Toews and Girard, Timmins would be left sitting in the bottom 6 spot for at least two more seasons. Even if one of those guys leave, it is projected that Byram would be the one to move up, which leaves Timmins the odd man out again. Furthermore, Timmins’ concussion history is not favorable. After missing an entire AHL season, Timmins fought his way back to get into the NHL l, where he struggled at time. He was injured again in the 2020 playoff bubble and then again in the 2021 regular season. Which makes it easier for the Avs to move him out based on uncertainties of health.
So why add a first-round pick? Well, Arizona held the key that the Avalanche wanted. The Avs already had made it known at the trade deadline that Darcy was a potential target and the Yotes knew it. With Grubauer making no-brainer decisions, Arizona knew they could probably get exactly what they wanted for the Avs who seemed to be “desperate.” To be honest, Colorado could have potentially looked to the Rangers and paid a similar payment to get Georgiev (who has asked for a trade) but they lose that veteran experience going with a young guy like Alex. Simply in the mind of many Cup-contending GMs, a 1st round pick for a vet keeper isn’t always that bad of an idea. You must be 100% certain that the injuries aren’t an issue, first. You absolutely do not make this trade if you feel there is an issue that is going to continue and cause your club harm down the line. If Sakic checked that box (which clearly he did) giving up what you presume to be a late first-round pick, really is not that big of an issue. Sure, you chance the team completely imploding and losing a lotto pick, but when you look at the lineup… Colorado is virtually the same team today (minus Gru) as they were last season. You lose some depth guys, but you had plenty of depth guys filling roles last season that you’re ok with what you have lost. You didn’t lose so much that that first-round pick needs to be held onto.
Ok ok, so why the 3rd Round Conditional Pick? If you’re a GM and you are being asked to hold $1M of a player’s contract, you want to be compensated for that. This 3rd round pick was purely for Arizona to hold onto that $1M, allowing the Avs to sign Tyson Jost and adding a depth D in Jordan Gross. Obviously, you don’t want to give that 3rd up for paying out the money. Wisely, the condition was also added which basically says – if we take our 1 in 32 chance and win the Stanley cup, we will give you that 3rd BUT that’s ONLY if the player you send us is the one playing more than 50% of the games to win the Cup. At the end of the day, IF the Avs win the cup – everyone will see this trade as Sakic just doing Sakic things and being a genius! If the Avs don’t win the Cup, well, we will determine how Kuemper did at that point and if the trade was worth it – but you also got cap space for free and get to tuck that 3rd Round pick back into your pocket.
Long story short, Kuemper is a SOLID goaltender that was WELL worth the price based on the position the team was in, the veteran experience, a happy out-going goaltender that WANTS to be in Denver. When a player WANTS to be somewhere you usually get their best, injuries and illness happen and if DK goes down with either we know Frankie will be back and hope he can pick up where he left off before the 2020 bubble. We can’t forget about Johansson either, the kid came in and played well for Colorado after a miserable start to his NHL career. I am sure we will see him at some point in the season (I feel like it’s inevitable the way goaltenders must play the game today.) We know he is more than capable of backing up.
I don’t know about you, but I have great vibes with Kuemper coming to Colorado – I remember when he Kuemper signed with the LA Kings. I was really hoping he would sign with the Avs to back up Varlamov. Then when his name came up at the trade deadline last season, I was hoping to pick him up, but the price was too high for Joe at that time. Sometimes, when something is meant to happen, it happens and truly, this is the best thing to happen to Colorado this offseason. Fans want players that WANT to be with their team, they don’t want the ones that just want the money. Especially Avalanche fans, after watching Matt Duchene “want to win” but not want to win with the Avs, why would you want to keep Grubauer when it was a No Brain move to sign for the big bucks on an expansion team that is not expected to do half as good as Vegas did.