The Minnesota Wild were very fortunate this season when it came to goaltending. Many were wondering where it was headed after the departure of seasoned starter Devan Dubnyk to the San Jose Sharks in October of 2020, but after a few hiccups, it sorted itself out.
Dubnyk’s leaving left a spot open for Alex Stalock, who had already taken some of the starting duties. However, he had an upper-body injury that forced him to miss out on the beginning of training camp and forced him to miss the start of the season. Later it was revealed that he suffered a heart condition, myocarditis, after testing positive for COVID-19 back in November, similar to Wild prospect Marco Rossi, also sidelined due to the same heart condition.
Stalock told Michael Russo in The AthleticNHL, “When they got a better picture, sure enough, they said, ‘You have myocarditis…” (from Exclusive: Alex Stalock shares details of heart condition, excitement about joining Oilers, The AthleticNHL– 3/1/21).
In March of this year, Stalock was claimed off of waivers by the Edmonton Oilers and the beloved goaltender left Minnesota to join his new teammates up in Canada. It came as quite a shock to many fans, but thankfully for the Wild, they seemed to have found a suitable starter in Cam Talbot.
Talbot Stepped Up
Talbot joined the Wild four days after Dubnyk’s trade. It was pretty clear the Wild had an idea of who they wanted to be, either their next backup to Stalock or, as it turned out, their next starter. Once news broke of Stalock’s injury, everything jumbled again.
It came down to Talbot or rookie Kaapo Kahkonen and coach Dean Evason had to choose between a veteran goaltender who’s played in 300+ National Hockey League games or a rookie with just five games under his belt. With the Wild wanting to avenge the previous season’s early dismissal in the qualifying round, Evason gave the reins to the veteran Talbot and he proved himself quite quickly.
The Wild relied on him for over half the season and he didn’t disappoint. In 33 games played, he had 19 wins, eight losses and five overtime losses. He also finished the season with a 2.63 goals-against average (GAA) which isn’t the greatest, but some of the top goalies this season were in similar positions. Montreal Canadians goaltender Carey Price had a 2.64 GAA in 25 games, Winnipeg Jets Connor Hellebuyck had 2.58 GAA in 45 games, and even the red-hot Tampa Bay Lightning’s goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy who played in 42 games this season, finished with a 2.21 GAA.
Talbot’s save percentage (SV%) of .915 had him in similar standing with other goaltenders, but his 19 wins put him tied for tenth place in the league. He was one of just 14 goalies to face over 1000 shots this season with 1,008 and he managed to let in just 86 goals leaving him with 922 saves.
Talbot in the Postseason
His stats didn’t change much following the Wild’s postseason, but Talbot basically stood on his head in the majority of their seven playoff games. Without him, they would have had a lot harder time against the Vegas Golden Knights. Both goalies kept their respective teams in the series with some remarkable saves.
Both Talbot and Golden Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury had similar save percentages throughout the first round, with Fleury having a slight advantage. Where they differed dramatically was the goals-against average. Talbot had a 2.45 GAA while Fleury managed a 1.71 GAA, but Talbot also received quite a few more shots on net than his opponent.
While Fleury faced 173 shots and let in just 12, Talbot faced 222 and let in 17. He faced nearly 50 more shots than Fleury and let in just five more goals. For all the pressure Talbot was facing, he did pretty well. Yes, the Wild lost out in seven games, but they probably wouldn’t have made it past four games without him. The goalie isn’t the only player out there, but Talbot was a difference-maker in each game he played.
Talbot’s Future With Wild
As far as contracts go, Talbot is locked up with the Wild until the 2023-24 season, when he’ll become an unrestricted free agent. However, by then, he’ll be 36 years old, the same age Fleury is currently. Talbot could continue to get better as he gets older or the opposite, it’s tough to say.
His salary is currently $3.6 million a season and that’s a relatively large hit to the Wild’s salary cap when they have a younger goaltender making his way up the ranks who will need a contract signed before Talbot’s expires. Speaking of that developing goaltender, it’s time to switch gears and see what the long-term future may hold.
Kahkonen Solid Backup
At the beginning of the season, it was unclear who would have the main starting spot. It seemed like Talbot and Kahkonen may swap nights, share the role, etc., but Talbot had such a strong showing right out of the gate, Kahkonen didn’t get a chance until a few games in.
Almost a week into the season and following Talbot’s first loss, the Wild’s backup got to show his true colors. Kahkonen came out with a solid win against the Anaheim Ducks in his first appearance of the season and then the next game, he entered in typical backup fashion. He relieved Cam Talbot when Talbot was injured and won in that game against the San Jose Sharks.
The month of February was shortened due to a two-week COVID-19 pause, but what games they could play were mostly taken by Kahkonen. The Wild played a total of eight games in that month, Talbot played in two, going 1-1, while Kahkonen took the other six and went 5-1. Both goalies had a decent month and season overall.
In 24 games, Kahkonen went 16-8. He faced 692 shots in that amount of time while only letting in 68 goals. He had a 2.88 GAA and a .902 SV%. Not the most amazing stats, but he tallied up some wins when the Wild really needed them and he was strong while their starter was out.
Missed Out on Postseason
Unfortunately for Kahkonen but fortunate for the Wild, Talbot played outstanding in the postseason, and he stayed healthy as well. That meant that the backup remained the backup and wasn’t needed in net during the Wild’s seven games.
Kahkonen doesn’t have any prior experience in the postseason, so it may have been a lot to throw him in the playoffs, but some of the best goalies perform the best under pressure. He may be one of those goalies, especially when his first games in the NHL back in 2019 were due to him being called up on an emergency basis because Devan Dubnyk had to leave for personal reasons. Stalock was the main starter while Dubnyk was out, but they threw Kahkonen in and he stepped up big. He went on to play four more games that season and went 3-1-1.
Kahkonen’s Future With the Wild
His postseason stats are less than Talbot’s, but his future with the Wild may not be. Being he’s younger and he’s had a winning record, his future may be quite bright. The Wild have one more season with him before becoming a restricted free agent in the 2022-23 season.
As far as the future goes for the Wild, they need a capable goaltender and someone who can help lead the team for years to come. In Kahkonen, they have that potential, he’s already proven himself more than once. He doesn’t have many games under his belt, but he’s been strong in the ones he does. If Kahkonen can keep up his winning record, he can be the strong net presence the Wild need and be one less thing they have to worry about.
Goaltending Going Forward
The Wild have two capable goaltenders for next season, but following that, they could lose their young star Kahkonen. Of course, moving into the future, the Wild will want to have a stable goaltender with the team for more than one season. Kahkonen fits that bill more than Talbot simply because of his age.
When it comes down to skill, Talbot’s age is in his favor because he’s nearly 10 years older, but in terms of seasons, he has roughly six seasons more of experience. In the end, his age may be what he does him in, he’s 33, going to be 34 soon and that does put him on the older side of goaltenders, only time will tell if his play can keep up.
Having seen both goaltenders play, I’m a fan of both, but the Wild should try as hard as possible to sign Kahkonen. He’s the goalie of the future and as much as they need a veteran, he’s to the point he can find his way as the starter. If they can manage to keep both, that’s the ultimate solution, but if not, their priority should be in the goalie that can lead them for years to come.
Kahkonen hasn’t had many chances to show what he’s made of, but given the chance, I think he’ll continue to step up and become a franchise face similar to fellow Finland native Niklas Backstrom who led the Wild for nine seasons. Their goalie tandem played solid this season and the Wild should do everything they can to keep it, but focus on Kahkonen.