SCOTTSDALE – The Coyotes open up the 2022-23 NHL season with question marks and unknowns abound.
Where and when will Jacob Chychrun play? Will 2021 first-round pick Dylan Guenther make the team? How will Clayton Keller respond from last season’s injury?
One player who the Coyotes are assured will be a known commodity and answer is their No. 1 goaltender: Karel Vejmelka.
The 2021 offseason left a void in goal after the Coyotes traded four-year starter Darcy Kuemper to the Colorado Avalanche. The Coyotes waited patiently for somebody to stand out and jump at the available opportunity.
Vejmelka did just that and never looked back.
He started 52 of 82 games for the Coyotes in 2021-2022, and finished with 13 wins, a 3.68 goals against average and a .898 save percentage.
“We’re excited about Vejmelka coming back,” Coyotes general manager Bill Armstrong said on media day two weeks ago. “He had a great season for us. (Last year) he really stepped up; this kid stole 10 games for us. He put it on his back.”
Before the NHL, Vejmelka played many seasons and developed in the Czechia league for HC Kometa Brno. To no surprise, it took time for Vejmelka to get comfortable in the NHL since being selected by the Nashville Predators in the fifth-round of the 2015 draft.
In his first true role as an NHL starter Vejmelka adjusted seamlessly from the first-to second-half of the season. He recorded 10 of his 13 wins for the Coyotes between January and April and enters this year ready to own the crease and show that his rookie year was no fluke.
“It’s a great opportunity for me,” Vejmelka said. “I have great experiences in my career and I want to make a big step forward. I’m looking forward to the season.”
Vejmelka’s play was not only impressive to his NHL team but to his home country of Czechia. He was invited to play for Czechia during the 2022 summer World Championships. Vejmelka finished with a 7-3 record behind a 2.02 goals against average and a .914 save percentage to help lead Czechia to a bronze medal.
“It was another dream come true for me,” Vejmelka said. “I really enjoyed every game. It was great to see my old friends and teammates. And we got a bronze medal after so great success for us.”
Vejmela admitted he wanted to get “faster” this summer and respond quicker to pucks in the crease. He looks visibly more comfortable in the net during training camp and practices. In two preseason games, Vejmelka has stopped 35 of 41 shots.
“He had a great season, but it’s not because you did it once that you will do it all your life,” Coyotes coach André Tourigny said. “That’s the NHL, you need to do it all the time. He’s a good guy, and we believe in him, no reason to doubt [him].”
There’s one question the Coyotes will have to answer: Who will be Vejmelka’s backup? Currently, the Coyotes have three goalies on their roster, including Vejmelka, NHL and AHL veteran Jon Gillies, and recent waiver claim acquisition Jonas Johansson from the Colorado Avalanche.
Johansson, who stands in the net at 6’5’’, started Tuesday’s preseason game against the Vegas Golden Knights and recorded 24 saves on 28 shots.
“Big body with good hands,” Tourigny said of Johansson. “We’ll see during the games how he read’s the play or reacts. All of that plus how he will bounce back from any mistake. So that’s gonna be the determining factor.”
With the team in a rebuild, the Coyotes are depending on Vejmelka to anchor the team during this phase of the organization. The team reinforced this stance after his impressive rookie season by signing him to a three-year contract extension in March.
“It’s an exciting time to see if he can take that next step,” Armstrong said. “He’s going to have a lot of work to show. Hopefully, he’s a little bit more comfortable in the league, and takes some time to adjust to the size of the rink. But he’s going to be our guy and we’re going to run with him.”