Other than taking the net sometimes for pick up hockey, I have a hard time relating to those that want to play goaltender. And that goes for any sport really. I will never forget the humilating embarrassment of being beaten 5-hole in a youth soccer game, but for these sports you are the last line of defense and more often than not the difference between winning and losing. No pressure, right?!? It is my understanding, that for many of those individuals who fell in love with the position liked the feeling of having the outcome of the game in their hands. They enjoy the confidence of their teammates they have everyone’s back and can hold the line against the opponents attacks.
When then interim Head Coach Dean Evason announced that training camp would serve as an audition for the playoffs it raised a few eyebrows. Switching up forward lines after not having played for 4 months was really that surprising but suggesting that who started in the Wild’s crease was also going to be up for grabs. That meant that Alex Stalock, despite having career-best numbers would have to win his starting job back. Stalock had supplanted Devan Dubnyk as the starter this season and perhaps it was some hope that with a few months of rest and reflection he could come back rejuvenated and focused. Yet after two scrimmages, Dubnyk still has given up the most goals at times seems to be fighting the puck much the way he did earlier in the season.
Stalock hasn’t been perfect either, at times making some great saves but also being caught out of position. Even a slight let down in a best of 5 series in its goaltending usually means it would result in a quick exit for any team let alone the Wild. Luckily for them, an alternative has emerged albeit through a somewhat smaller sample size. 23-year old Kaapo Kahkonen has been perfect, not allowing a single goal and demonstrating terrific rebound control in both scrimmages, which is usually a hallmark of a goaltender that is dialed in and prime for the playoffs. He was facing the same NHL-calibre shooters Stalock and Dubnyk did, and looked poised and efficient. During the initial scrimmage last week Saturday, Kahkonen’s team was trailing 3-1 in the 3rd period only to rally back to win 4-3 in overtime. Wild Head Coach Dean Evason certainly took notice of Kahkonen’s strong play when he told the Athletic‘s Michael Russo:
“He looked like he challenged. I have not talked to the goalie coaches about the goaltenders yet. He’s obviously a great goaltender and challenged very well. But we thought all the goaltenders played extremely well today in the scrimmage. Look forward to having that tough decision.” ~ Minnesota Wild Head Coach Dean Evason
Kahkonen was the 2019-20’s AHL’s ‘goaltender of the year’ as he went 25-6-3 with a 2.07 goals against average and a .927 save percentage and a league leading 7 shutouts. The Helsinki-native was a big reason the Iowa Wild were considered a serious Calder Cup contender. His strong play this season earned him a few opportunities to play with Minnesota this season and he handled himself just about as well as Stalock and Dubnyk as he went 3-1 with a 2.96 goals against average and a .913 save percentage.
While I still think Kahkonen is a dark horse to be given the backup role the fact he is making a case to be in the conversation is a testament to his solid play as well as the erosion of confidence around Dubnyk. At this point, considering what the organization has said about players ‘earning’ their spot based on their performance in training camp he Kahkonen has probably making it a tougher choice than what they probably expected to have a few months ago. No doubt a choice to go with Kahkonen might shake things up in the locker room a bit. Dubnyk is a veteran goaltender on a veteran-laden squad and is also the team’s NHLPA representative for the team. So do the Wild live up to their pledge or look to keep harmony within the locker room by giving Dubnyk the back up job?
The truth is, Dubnyk’s numbers going into the break were sub-par, which is why he lost his job as the undisputed #1 goaltender of the team. Alex Stalock has stepped in and at least provided average goaltending, and if he isn’t able to provide the performance needed the team will not wish to wait long. So if you are going to stand by your words one would think this would be a really tough choice as to who you will have backing up Stalock going into their 1st playoff game against Vancouver on August 2nd.
Of course the other part of the story is what this means for Devan Dubnyk’s future with the team. With one more season left on his contract after this one and steadily declining play it is hard to envision how he takes back the starting role unless Stalock’s game falls completely apart. It is partly ironic that Stalock, who is still on the start of a very affordable 3-year deal was signed to that term to be used a token goalie target for the newly minted Seattle Kraken as part of the NHL Expansion draft in 2021.
So are Devan Dubnyk’s days in Minnesota numbered? He does have a modified no-trade clause but I don’t think the Wild’s plan is to have a back up goaltender making $4.33 million per season. On KFAN‘s Beyond the Pod‘s most recent episode, hosts Brandon Mileski and Pat Micheletti speculated that the Vancouver Canucks may actually offer a solution to the Wild’s goaltending conundrum in their likely starter for the play in series in Jacob Markstrom. You can hear the commentary in the YouTube clip below.
Markstrom is an intriguing option as he is set to be an unrestricted free agent and will likely be due for a significant raise over the $3.66 million / year he’s currently making. At 30 years old he would give Kahkonen more time to ready for himself for that starting role. However, the question of course would be how much would Markstrom take and how much term he would want. Most 30-year olds are looking to have a longer-lasting pay day than perhaps the Wild might be willing to give and it would no doubt mean they’d have to find a way to move Dubnyk.
I think the most likely scenario is that Stalock will be the starter in Game 1 and after that it will be variable based on how well / how poorly he plays.
Either way, its is good to see another goaltender developed in the system appear to be nearing that point where they take the next step in the organization. At the very least, Kahkonen gives the organization another viable option and the fact he’s even in the conversation already speaks volumes about how encouraging his development has been so far.
What do you think? Has Kahkonen earned the backup sport for the play in series or does veteran experience matter more (even if it probably will be sitting on the bench)? Tell us what you think on Twitter @CreaseAndAssist or in the comment section below!