Cat Silverman of Elite Prospects was watching Kaapo Kahkonen and had a tough time figuring him out. Sure, the Finnish goalie got results, but his movement in net looked so awkward it was hard to see how. Luckily, Silverman knew a friend who played goalie against Kahkonen in the Finnish league. She texted him to ask what he thought of Kahkonen’s clunky transitions.
The goalie didn’t answer the question, but he did offer his scouting report on Kahkonen. “His parents must have been Russian bears because he has the strongest fucking legs I’ve ever seen.”
If true, this bombshell puts Kahkonen’s Calder Trophy chances in jeopardy. There was already a minor controversy surrounding Kirill Kaprizov’s eligibility this year. Imagine the outcry that’ll ensue once Kahkonen’s ancestry comes to light.
Whatever the reason, be it bear genetics or normal human goalie skills, Kahkonen’s star is on the rise. He’s following up his AHL Goalie of the Year season by turning heads in Minnesota.
It’s an exciting development for the Wild, though this was certainly not part of the plan. General manager Bill Guerin attempted to shore up the goaltending this offseason by bringing in veteran Cam Talbot. With Alex Stalock slated in the backup role, Kahkonen was set to be the Iowa Wild’s workhorse again.
The arrangement went awry immediately. Stalock had coronavirus complications that left him unable to start the season in Minnesota. Kahkonen took his place as backup, and shortly thereafter Talbot suffered an injury. Five games into the season Kahkonen was the Wild’s starter. Initially, he performed like a rookie backup. His 2-3-0 record and .901 save percentage in relief of Talbot wasn’t anything to write home about. When Talbot returned, Kahkonen was firmly set in a backup role.
Then Talbot got infected in the Wild’s COVID outbreak. This time, Kahkonen seized the opportunity. He took his lumps behind a recovering, exhausted Wild team in their first game back, but since then, he’s been the hottest goalie in the league. He’s riding a nine-game winning streak, which includes a win over the Colorado Avalanche, a sweep of the Vegas Golden Knights, and two shutouts. A ridiculous .947 save percentage in that span now has him at .927 for the year, third-best in the NHL.
Now Minnesota has to ask themselves the question prospect watchers had last season: Is this guy for real?
Goaltending is notoriously volatile at the NHL level, with only the very elite goalies maintaining stellar results from year to year. That’s doubly true for young goalies, who must make counter-adjustments on the fly when shooters adjust to them. Carter Hart posted a .915 save percentage in his first two seasons. Now he’s at .880 for a sinking Philadelphia Flyers team. Matt Murray won two Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins, but his sudden issues have him exiled to Ottawa.
Simply put, it’s hard to tell who will succeed and who won’t. Especially in a case like Kahkonen, whose track record in the AHL was that of a streaky goalie. In fact, in his AHL rookie season he rocked a .950 save percentage in his first 10 games. Then he gave up four or more goals in 15 of his remaining 29 games. Last season, he had a .902 save percentage for his first 19 games before riding a .954 streak in his final 15.
That tendency to run hot and cold has to be a concern. His rebound control also comes up as a red flag. Natural Stat Trick’s data has Kahkonen as facing 3.8 rebounds per hour at 5-on-5. That’s the seventh-most out of 43 goaltenders with 500-plus minutes. Rebounds aren’t necessarily a death sentence for a goalie — especially one whose leg strength stops shooters from stuffing in rebounds. Still, rebounds are significantly more likely to score than regular shots, so this could bite Kahkonen if he doesn’t clean it up.
Even with the warts in his game, Kahkonen has a few things going for him. Chief among them is the Wild defense. Minnesota may be playing an up-tempo offensive style, but they’re as stingy in their own end as ever. They’ve allowed just 1.97 goals per hour at 5-on-5, fifth in the NHL, making Kahkonen’s life simple.
When accounting for the defense in front of him, Kahkonen’s numbers look less impressive than his .927 save percentage suggests. He’s surrendered 32 goals on 34 expected goals, which means he’s only very slightly out-performing the .923 he’s projected to have.
That sounds like an insult or trying to take away from Kahkonen’s game. It isn’t. A player can only make the saves the defense gives to him, and when he’s been tested, he’s been good. This has been his greatest advantage over Talbot so far.
Talbot is very much like Devan Dubnyk for most of his Wild tenure. Dubnyk rarely would steal a game for Minnesota, but he generally stopped the pucks he should have. When the defense holds up, Talbot is more than capable of keeping his team in games. It’s when things break down that things get hairy.
According to NST, Talbot has faced 61 high-danger shots this season, allowing 16 goals. That’s a .738 save percentage on those shots, putting him near the bottom five of the league. Kahkonen, on the other hand, leads the league with an .880 high-danger save percentage, allowing just 12 goals in 100 tries.
That difference is massive. It lets Minnesota play offense with confidence, knowing Kahkonen is capable of bailing out a mistake. So, yes, the Wild’s team defense makes Kahkonen’s life easy, but his big saves return the favor.
What does the future hold for Kahkonen? It’s hard to say given the unpredictability inherent in the position. Still, Minnesota’s structure isn’t going anywhere, and it has kept average goalies afloat for nearly a decade. All Kahkonen needs to do is be solid to be a viable backstop. If it turns out Kahkonen can not only merely hold up his end of the bargain but meaningfully contribute too? Then get used to this kind of goalie play in the State of Hockey.