It’s time for the Minnesota Wild to buck the trend. For well over a decade, the Wild found most of their success when a single bell-cow goaltender manned the crease. But with the recent excellence of young netminder Kaapo Kahkonen, it’s time for the Wild to look inward and change their approach in net.
Veteran goaltender Cam Talbot sustained a lower-body injury during the Winter Classic loss against the St. Louis Blues. For most of January, the Wild had to continue on in his absence, turning the net over to their second-year goalie. Kahkonen responded brilliantly. He posted a robust .936 save percentage in his seven starts and led the Wild to a 6-0-1 record. With Talbot returning from his injury and working his way back into his standard role, the Wild need to reassess how they approach their goaltending tandem.
Minnesota found itself in a similar situation about a year ago. Talbot got off to a good start at the start of the pandemic-delayed season but found himself out of the lineup for a lengthy period of time due to injury, followed immediately by a stint on the COVID protocol list. Kahkonen filled in admirably. At one point, he won nine straight starts and found himself atop many Calder Trophy lists alongside Kirill Kaprizov.
However, Evason returned to leaning on his veteran security blanket in Talbot once he was healthy, a habit not unfamiliar with unproven NHL coaches. At the time, the decision was not heavily scrutinized. Talbot produced a very solid .914 save percentage over the remainder of the season, leading the Wild to the playoffs. Meanwhile, Kahkonen struggled mightily down the stretch during his limited appearances.
While there are similarities that might suggest history could repeat itself now, there are too many glaring differences the Wild would be wise to acknowledge. Talbot was in the first season of a three-year contract last year, for starters. After his injury and COVID protocol visit only four starts into the season, it made sense for the Wild to turn back to the goalie they signed to be their starter for the season.
Fast forward nearly a whole calendar year, and the story is quite different. The Wild are thriving with a second-place standing in the Central Division nearly halfway through their season. But it has been despite the play of their 34-year-old goaltender. While his .910 save percentage hovers around league average, his underlying metrics are less than flattering (-7.31 Goals Saved Above Expected). For context, the only two goaltenders with a lower GSAx in as many games played as Talbot are Arizona’s Karel Vejmelka (-8.85) and Seattle’s Philipp Grubauer (-24.73). Before you go rushing to Evolving-Hockey’s website to make sure that number’s correct, I can assure you, it is.
Conversely, following a slow start to the season, Kahkonen had slowly improved throughout his occasional appearances this year until flourishing under the spotlight following Talbot’s injury on Jan. 1st. His .922 SV% and 3.34 GSAx are light years ahead of what Talbot has produced. In a year where the Wild look like contenders, the sample sizes are large enough this time around to see that Kahkonen deserves a chance to compete with Talbot for the starting role, especially with the demanding schedule the Wild find themselves embarking upon in the last half of the season.
Beyond just the drive to win now, the Wild also need to give their Finnish goaltender this chance as they plan for the future. Talbot is now halfway through his contract, and it’s time for general manager Bill Guerin to see what he has in Kahkonen before needing to decide who occupies the net when the former’s contract expires in 2024.
When Talbot returned from injury last season, Kahkonen’s playing time decreased immensely, which may have led to his poor play. Young goaltenders need to see the net more than once every couple of weeks to find consistency. If the Wild want to get an honest assessment of Kahkonen’s potential fit with their future, they would be wise to give him the chance to fully prove himself.
Evason is no longer an inexperienced head coach looking to secure his spot behind the bench. His recent contract extension finally gives him the stability every coach hopes for. It’s now time for him to find some stability in net, and all signs point towards Kahkonen providing it.