Following a set of early season setbacks due to injuries and COVID-19 protocol tracing, the Minnesota Wild appear set at goaltending with the current tandem of Cam Talbot and Kaapo Kähkönen.
The team is 14-8-1 and is in third place in the West division.
With Devan Dubnyk’s five years with the team ending after last year’s subpar .890 save percentage (SV%) and play-in round starter Alex Stalock claimed off waivers by the Edmonton Oilers, Minnesota enters a new era of consistency in the crease.
Beyond Talbot’s resurgence and Kähkönen’s development is the gradual rebuild of the prospect pool, including two highly regarded young goaltenders in Hunter Jones and Filip Lindberg.
A team known to not draft goalies (only four goalies drafted since 2014), the Wild created a sense of longevity in goal with their own homegrown prospects. The Wild drafted Kähkönen in the fourth round (109th) in 2014, Jones was 59th overall in 2019, and Lindberg was 197th the same year.
The two longest-tenured goaltenders in team history, Niklas Backstrom and Dubnyk, were already established pros that were thrust into the starting positions. This means Kähkönen’s emergence is historical for the team.
One note to keep in mind is that while Talbot has found renewed consistency in Minnesota, at 33 years old, he should be considered a safe stop-gap that aligns with general manager Bill Guerin’s youth movement plan. Pending any unforeseen setback, Kähkönen is the starter moving forward.
Following his draft year, Kähkönen spent time in SM-liiga and Mestis in Finland before making the jump to North America. Prior to his arrival to the AHL’s Iowa Wild, Kähkönen won a gold medal as the Finnish starter during the 2016 World Junior Championship.
Already touted as a top prospect to watch coming out of the U-20 international tournament, he was named the AHL goaltender of the year last season after going 25-6-3 with 2.07 goals against average (GAA) and a .927 SV%.
The Wild have been patient with Kähkönen, allowing him to have ample games at each level and bringing him along gradually with Talbot as a veteran supporter, which can provide some healthy competition for the 24-year-old to continue pushing for starts.
This season, Kähkönen is 10-4-0 with a .924 SV% for the Wild and appears set to take over full-time as the team aims for a return to the playoffs.
The Calder Trophy race conversation will continue to focus on the elite play of his teammate, Kirill Kaprizov, but Kähkönen should be getting some attention as well. He has been stellar on nights when the Wild battled injuries and were relying heavily on its taxi squad to fill the lines.
Without him, the Wild arguably would not be competing for a top spot in the West Division or grinding through the early season setbacks.
Jones is in his first year of pro hockey with the Iowa Wild. Sharing the net with Dereck Baribeau and Joel Rumpel, the 20-year-old is 0-3-1 with a .805 GAA.
This follows three seasons with the OHL’s Peterborough Petes, where Jones recorded 62 wins (two seasons as the starter). In this final season with the Petes in 2019, Jones was 31-14-3 with a .913 SV% and 2.75 GAA.
He earned a silver medal with Team Canada at the World U-17 Hockey Challenge during the 2016-17 season and played in the CHL Top Prospects Game in 2019.
The 20-year-old was the Wild’s second-round pick (59th) in 2019. Ranked third in North American goaltenders according to NHL Central Scouting final rankings, the Wild traded up picks 73 and 99 to the Carolina Hurricanes for the right to select Jones.
The 22-year-old is currently the starter for the University of Massachusetts Minutemen in the NCAA’s Hockey East conference.
Originally selected in 2019 as a 20-year-old over-ager, Lindberg has spent the past three seasons at UMass. In 43 games, he is 23-9-6 with a 1.69 GAA and a .933 SV%. So far this season, he is 4-1-4.
During this stretch, he won a gold medal as the backup goalie for Finland at the 2019 World Junior Championship, recording a shutout in his lone game.
There has yet to be a decision on whether Lindberg will play out his NCAA eligibility or turn professional after this season. He has one more year of eligibility before the Wild will need to give him a contract.
Prior to joining the Minutemen, Lindberg played several seasons in Finland’s SM-sarja’s U16 and U18 divisions.
He played a career-high 48 games in 2017-18 for TUTO Hockey U20 in Jr. A SM-liiga before entering university.
After years of relying on free agency and trades for goalies, the Wild finally have a steady pipeline in their system.
Kähkönen’s emergence will continue to be the focal point this season as Minnesota builds on the recent consistency and renewed confidence.
At 24, he is entering his prime, and this should bode well for a team that has made it known it wants to get younger. Coupled with this message is the recent draft success, including Marco Rossi, Matthew Boldy and Adam Beckman, that further strengthen the youth movement.
Beyond Kähkönen, the Wild have two goalies that are getting consistent playing time. With enough patience afforded to them, Jones and Lindberg can continue to refine their skillset and adjust to stiffer competition outside of the junior leagues.
Sports journalist covering the Minnesota Wild. Currently completing a journalism degree in Toronto, Canada.