Defense has been one of the Minnesota Wild’s biggest strengths for nearly a decade.
The way Minnesota shuts down opposing offenses isn’t the product of any one coach or general manager either. The talent defense runs deep on the roster. It also makes life easy for goaltenders. Devan Dubnyk was a legitimate Vezina Trophy candidate in 2017 before a hard month of March tanked his chances and took the Wild out of the race for the Central Division crown. He never was the same after that. With Dubnyk struggling through last season, Alex Stalock gave it a valiant effort and helped the Wild get into the bubble. But Bill Guerin knew he couldn’t enter this season with the same situation in the net.
After he jettisoned Dubnyk in the offseason, Guerin set out to solve the goaltending position. His only move in free agency was signing Cam Talbot, who had a similar career arc to Dubnyk. But if he could replicate the goaltending that Dubnyk provided for those first couple of seasons, it could buy enough time for the Wild to develop a goalie of the future while not wasting cheap years of Kirill Kaprizov and Kevin Fiala.
The expectations for Talbot were basically “not to mess it up” while manning the net behind the Wild defense.
With the Wild’s win over the Arizona Coyotes on Wednesday, Minnesota’s chances of making the playoffs are all but clinched per SportClubStats.com. With only formalities left, Minnesota must begin to round their game into playoff form. For the goalies, Talbot and rookie Kaapo Kahkonen need to keep playing at this level.
Talbot has been lights out in net after a rocky start to the season. An early-season injury kept him out of a few games, and a COVID-19 breakout in the Wild locker room kept him off the ice for even longer. The former Edmonton Oilers goalie is used to a heavy workload, but the nature of the start of his season could have easily frustrated the eight-year vet.
Before the Wild were forced off the ice, Talbot was just average. He allowed 12.7 goals against 12.47 expected. This is the epitome of “not messing it up.” For Kahkonen, his numbers were nearly identical even though he got the lion’s share of the net early in the season. However, since Minnesota returned from COVID, Talbot has played like a man possessed. In 17 games since Feb. 26, Talbot has stopped over eight goals above what was expected. That’s good for fifth in the league during that time, right behind last year’s Stanley Cup winner Andrei Vasilevskiy and Vezina Award winner Connor Hellebuyck. Talbot was no longer just a passenger on the Wild but actually contributing to wins.
Has Kahkonen taken a step back in his play with Talbot demanding the net more frequently? He’s been victimized a couple of times by the Colorado Avalanche and ate a 9-1 loss to the St. Louis Blues in his most recent start. But throwing out that blowout loss, Kahkonen still has a 5-2 record with a .924 save percentage. Dean Evason was looking to give Talbot a respite, but in normal circumstances, he would’ve pulled his rookie goaltender after surrendering four goals in 16 minutes. So while the 9-1 drubbing is a pockmark on an otherwise fine season by the rookie, he’s still performing better than what the Wild rolled out just last year.
They have enough on the backend to support a run in the playoffs between the defense and the goaltending. Talbot has been amazing, and the youngster Kahkonen can get hot to support him. Meanwhile, the team defense led by the six defensemen helps make life as a goalie in the Wild organization just a bit easier. With the trade deadline now having come and gone with no move by Guerin, can the Wild offer up enough offense to pull out a series win?
One answer, though, is that Guerin made a point to fix the goaltending before the season, and with 15 games remaining, it appears like he found a goalie ready for what the playoffs will throw at him.