The Minnesota Wild dropped a stinker in front of more than 38,000 fans as they welcomed the St. Louis Blues for the State of Hockey’s first-ever Winter Classic on Saturday. With injuries to Jared Spurgeon and Joel Eriksson Ek, a COVID-positive Jonas Brodin, and a whopping 11 days without a game, the Wild put together their most forgettable performance of the season. It was a far cry from the group that began the season 19-6-1. They have now lost five in a row, and their once-comfortable cushion atop the Central Division is no more.
It remains far too early to ring the alarm bells. The injury and NHL scheduling woes are valid excuses for the recent poor performances. But the Wild will need more consistent and better performances from their goaltending tandem if they want to be considered legitimate contenders.
It’s been a roller coaster year for Cam Talbot and Kaapo Kahkonen. Early season concerns were calmed by an eight-game win streak in late November. But now that they’re on a losing skid, those pesky goalie issues are cropping up again.
Let’s start by looking at Talbot. The Wild inked him to a 3-year, $11 million deal in the summer of 2020. His first season in Minnesota was a success. Talbot posted a 19-8-5 record, backstopping a resurgent Wild club to the playoffs.
But Talbot seems much less comfortable than he did last year. The most basic advanced statistic to evaluate goaltenders is Goals Saved Above Expected. Essentially, how does a goalie's expected goals against stack up against their actual goals allowed? So far, Talbot has a -0.2 Goals Saved Above Expected on the year. This ranks as the 30th best among all goaltenders who have played at least eight games (via MoneyPuck).
This is far from the end of the world, but recent results are much less flattering for Talbot. In his last four starts, starting with the game against the Vegas Golden Knights on Dec. 12, Talbot has allowed -7.14 goals above expected. So yes, it is fair to say that while the team in front of him has not done him any favors, Talbot is still to blame for letting in some soft goals.
Kaapo Kahkonen made his Wild debut in the 2019-20 season before earning a permanent backup role last season. He had a relatively solid season in the net, winning 16 of 24 games on the year. It looked like the Wild would have a 1A/1B situation when Kahkonen won nine consecutive starts, but Talbot would emerge as the go-to option as the season progressed. Some rough starts down the stretch, including a pair of shellackings where the St. Louis Blues hung 16 goals on Kahkonen, further solidified Talbot as the No. 1.
This season, starts have been few and far between for Kahkonen. It does not appear that the Wild brass has a ton of faith in him. Not only has Talbot played three times as many games so far, but the Wild drafted Talbot's eventual successor – Jesper Wallstedt – in the first round of the 2021 NHL Draft.
Still, when given the opportunity this season, Kahkonen has been surprisingly reliable. His 0.9 Goals Saved Above Expected ranks him 25th of all goalies who have played at least eight games. In his last four starts, starting with a game in Tampa shortly before Thanksgiving, Kahkonen has saved 1.45 goals above expected. That’s far from spectacular, but he has yet to actively cost the Wild any wins other than two rough outings against the Tampa Bay Lightning and Nashville Predators.
Kahkonen may not be a part of the long-term outlook of this team, but he needs to be playing more games. With Talbot now sidelined indefinitely with a lower-body injury, he will be the de facto No. 1 for the immediate future. Last season, Kahkonen was not rotated enough, and it showed during his limited opportunities down the stretch.
Can Minnesota win with league average goaltending? Sure. But it makes the job of the rest of the team that much more difficult. At some point, the Wild are going to need Talbot and/or Kahkonen to steal some games. Teams can’t expect to make a deep playoff run without great goaltending. Either Talbot needs to re-discover his excellent form from down the stretch last year, or Kahkonen needs to use this opportunity to prove he's reliable. If neither happens, Minnesota has a huge problem going into this spring.