This is the first article in a three-part series looking at the 2021-22 season outlook at each position. The series will review the 2021 season, analyze the depth chart, and answer burning questions that face the team.
Last offseason, the Minnesota Wild were at a crossroads with their goaltending tandem of Devan Dubnyk and Alex Stalock. The underwhelming tandem continued to hinder the team’s ability to materialize any success. They finally moved on from long-time starter Devan Dubnyk by trading him to the San Jose Sharks. Subsequently, months later, Stalock was placed on waivers and picked up by the Edmonton Oilers.
The changes resulted in Kaapo Kahkonen finally getting an opportunity at the NHL level. To protect his development, the Wild signed veteran Cam Talbot to a three-year contract. He will serve as a stopgap with the hope that Kahkonen can become a starter by the time his contract ends.
Review of 2021
Fast forward to the 2020-21 campaign, the Wild finally got league-average goaltending. It was a huge reason why they made the postseason and took the Vegas Golden Knights to seven games. The tandem ended up becoming a significant upgrade, but next year will be a big test with the roster changes defensively.
Due to an early-season injury and Covid protocols, Talbot was restricted to 32 games. It gave Kahkonen a huge opportunity between the pipes.
Talbot had a solid first season with the Wild after general manager Bill Guerin took a gamble on the veteran goaltender. He has proved to be a capable starter. He posted a .915 save percentage in the 32 game span, also saving 6.57 goals above average. He finished in the middle of the pack in terms of wins above replacement too.
The veteran netminder had a rough start and finish of the season. The early-season injury, and the rough span of games down the stretch, really hurt his overall numbers. In the middle of the season, when he was on his game, he was a top-10 goalie in the league, and the numbers back it up.
Kahkonen displayed some promising signs, but he was very inconsistent and his record last season is very misleading. Not only did he have a .902 save percentage, but he finished the season with some of the worst underlying numbers in the league. He allowed 15.34 goals more than expected based on shot quality, a number that was the fourth-worst in the league.
To his defense, the blowout against the St. Louis Blues, and a few other games, were the main contributors to his poor numbers. That is why there should be some optimism going into next season that he can become more composed and confident in the crease, and perhaps his numbers will improve too.
1. Can Cam Talbot Continue His Strong Play?
After excelling in his first season, there’s nothing to suggest that he can’t replicate last season’s success. After a rough number of games down the stretch, Talbot rebounded and was brilliant in the playoffs. He posted a .923 save percentage and saved 1.78 goals above expected (seventh best). He was arguably the biggest reason why the Wild stayed in the series.
2. Will Kaapo Kahkonen Breakout?
When Kahkonen won nine straight games from late February to mid-March, it seemed like he was poised to take the starter role from Talbot and possibly even be the goalie of the future for the Wild. Aside from that span, he was often inconsistent and allowing soft goals.
There is some concern that Kahkonen won’t be able to reach starter status in the league, which is very problematic for the Wild because Jesper Wallstedt won’t be on the roster for several years. Talbot has two years remaining on his contract, so these next two seasons are paramount for Kahkonen, especially next season because he will be a restricted free agent next summer with arbitration rights.
After buying out Ryan Suter, losing Carson Soucy to expansion, and Ian Cole to free agency, there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the defensive core. While there may be minimal impact, there’s a chance that both Talbot and Kahkonen will be tested next season. The Wild’s brass is certainly confident that the additions will fill the shoes of the departures and if they don’t, both goaltenders will have to step up.
All Data Via Evolving-Hockey, Natural Stat Trick & Hockey-Reference
Aaron Heckmann is a journalism & broadcasting student. He covers the Wild for The Hockey Writers & Zone Coverage’s 10krinks. His data-driven articles are focused on solving problems, telling stories, and discovering unique storylines. Find him on Twitter @aaron_heckmann.