Wild’s Next Goaltending Era Starts With Kaapo Kahkonen

Since the Minnesota Wild entered the league in the 2000-01 season, fans of the team have seen a lot of players come and go. However, one thing that the Wild have always had is a consistent starting goalie in net. Not many NHL franchises, regardless of how long they’ve been around, can say that they were able to transition from one reliable starting goalie’s era to the next without much of a gap in between. Some teams will have a dominant starter for years, only to struggle to find one once that one leaves.

The Wild’s goaltending history to this point can be easily divided by three starting goalie eras: the Manny Fernandez and Dwayne Roloson Era, the Niklas Backstrom Era and the Devan Dubnyk Era. While each era had its highs and lows, the fact is that the Wild seem to have always had a reliable starting goalie. Now, the next era of goaltending in Minnesota could belong to Kaapo Kahkonen. While this is only his first season getting quality starter minutes with the team, he has looked good this season and is already a potential Calder Memorial Trophy candidate for the NHL’s Rookie of the Year.

Whether Kahkonen is the Wild’s starter for the next few seasons remains to be seen. Before we can get there, here’s an analysis of the Wild’s starting goalie eras up until this point.

Manny Fernandez/Dwayne Roloson (2000-07)

Before the start of the 2000-01 NHL season, the Wild acquired Fernandez from the Dallas Stars. The hope was that he could give the Wild a reliable starting goalie presence in their inaugural season. While the team finished at the bottom of the Northwest Division that season, Fernandez put up a respectable 19-17-4 record with a 2.24 goals against average (GAA) and a .920 save percentage (SV%) while splitting starting duties with Jamie McLennan.

Despite Fernandez’s impressive first season with the Wild, the organization brought in undrafted 32-year-old goalie Roloson to split starts with him in 2001. Roloson added stability to the back end after some criticized Fernandez’s playstyle as being too inconsistent in the next few years. Still, the Fernandez/Roloson Era in Minnesota’s high point was a run that saw them make the Western Conference Final in just their third season. This run included a 43-save performance by Fernandez in a 3-2 overtime victory in Game 7 of the first round. (from ‘Wild stuns Avalanche in Game 7,’ Chicago Tribune, 04/23/2003)

Unfortunately, the Wild have not made the Western Conference Final again since the 2002-03 season. However, that’s not to say that Fernandez and Roloson didn’t have successful careers in Minnesota. In 260 games with the team, Fernandez had 113 wins (third), a .914 SV% (tied for eighth) and a 2.47 GAA (seventh). He also shared the 2006-07 William M. Jennings Trophy with Niklas Backstrom after the Wild gave up the least number of goals that season.

Meanwhile, Roloson ranks fourth in Wild wins (62), second in SV% (.919) and fourth in GAA (2.28). In the 2003-04 season, he was also an All-Star and won the Roger Crozier Saving Grace Award for best SV% in the league.

Niklas Backstrom (2006-2015)

After arriving to the NHL during the 2006-07 season, it didn’t take long for Backstrom to steal the starting job from Fernandez. In his first season with the Wild, Backstrom had a 23-8-6 record with a 1.97 GAA and .929 SV%. As mentioned before, he split the William M. Jennings Trophy with Fernandez that season.

Niklas Backstrom Minnesota Wild
Niklas Backstrom, Minnesota Wild (“Niklas Backstrom” by Dinur is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Within his first three seasons with the Wild, Backstrom finished in the top six for Vezina Trophy voting for the NHL’s top goaltender. That also includes when he finished in third in 2008-09. Backstrom also won the Roger Crozier Saving Grace Award with a .929 SV% that season.

Unfortunately, injuries made it so that Backstrom only played in two of the Wild’s playoff runs during his time with the team. Still, Backstrom provided stability in net for most of his tenure in Minnesota. In nine seasons, Backstrom played in 41 or more games seven times. He’s also first in Wild history when it comes to goaltending games played (409), wins (194) and shutouts (28). It’s clear that Backstrom has made a case for being the Wild’s best goalie in franchise history. However, a healthier second-half to his career probably would’ve put his numbers further out of reach from his successors.

Devan Dubnyk (2015-20)

The Wild’s goaltending situation to kickoff the 2014-15 season was far from ideal. Backstrom and Darcy Kuemper were struggling and Josh Harding was out of the lineup dealing with multiple sclerosis and a broken foot. In what former general manager Chuck Fletcher described as “an act of desperation,” the Wild acquired Devan Dubnyk from the Arizona Coyotes for a third-round pick. In 39 games with the Wild that season, Dubnyk posted a 27-9-2 record, along with a 1.78 GAA and 0.936 SV%, leading to a Vezina Trophy nomination. He was also voted to the NHL Second All-Star Team and wound up winning the 2014-15 Bill Masterton Trophy for his perseverance in getting his career back on track.

Dubnyk’s time in Minnesota contains several memorable goaltending moments, including when he set the franchise’s shutout streak record at 195 minutes and 54 seconds, which included three straight shutouts.

Unfortunately, that was the peak of Dubnyk’s time with the franchise. His statistics slowly started to slip until he wound up getting traded to the San Jose Sharks back in October 2020.

In five-and-a-half seasons with the Wild, Dubnyk started for the team in four straight playoff runs between 2015 and 2018. While the team never made a deep run with him, Dubnyk is still the team’s all-time leader in playoff games played (26) and wins (eight). He is also second in the Wild’s all-time wins (177) and shutouts (23). While a Stanley Cup or Vezina Trophy never happened during Dubnyk’s stint with Minnesota, he provided the organization with a reliable option in the net until the beginning of what could be the team’s next goaltending era.

Kaapo Kahkonen (2020-Present)

Before joining the Wild full-time this season, Kahkonen had a successful pre-NHL career the showed glimpses of what he could become. He was a part of the Team Finland roster that won the gold medal at the 2016 World Juniors. In the American Hockey League, he won the 2019-20 Aldege “Baz” Bastien Memorial Award for the AHL’s best goaltender after going 25-6-3 with a 2.07 GAA and .927 SV% with the Iowa Wild. Heading into the 2020-21 season, Kahkonen was expected to split starts with Cam Talbot after Alex Stalock was injured during the offseason. As Talbot ended up missing time too, Kahkonen stepped up to the plate and hasn’t looked out of place as the Wild’s starter.

Kaapo Kahkonen Minnesota Wild
As of March 7, Kaapo Kahkonen is 9-4-0 in 13 games. He also has a 2.30 GAA and .918 save percentage in those games. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Now, it’s too early to say that Kahkonen will be the franchise’s starting goalie for nine years like Backstrom did, but the potential is there. He’s been relatively successful at every level so far. He’s also only 24 years old and it’s not unusual for goalies to get better as their career progresses. Kahkonen is also under contract until the end of the 2021-22 season and will be a restricted free agent following that, so the Wild will be able to control his future. Plus, this is how old the other aforementioned goalies were when they began their Wild careers:

  • Fernandez: 26
  • Roloson: 32
  • Backstrom: 28
  • Dubnyk: 28

Going Forward…

Looking back, it’s clear that the Wild have been able to transition between goaltending eras without any gaps in between. While some eras were more successful than others, they all have provided stability between the pipes over the last 21 years. It’s unknown if the Wild will be fortunate enough to start a new era where Kahkonen is the starter for the next several years, but the future does look bright. Kahkonen has proven so far that he can be relied on when Minnesota has needed him this season and it will be interesting to monitor his progress going forward.

With how relatively “young” the franchise is, don’t be surprised to see Kahkonen’s name climbing up the Wild’s franchise goaltending records over the next four or five years. If the Wild have it their way, the hockey world will look back at the 2020-21 season as when the Kahkonen Era began.