The Minnesota Wild haven’t had a Goalie of the Future since the early 2010s. That was the time where Darcy Kuemper was developing behind the solid tandem of Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding. Kuemper thrived as a backup in the AHL and Minnesota’s future in net appeared strong.
Things didn’t work nearly as planned. Backstrom declined sharply and a multiple sclerosis diagnosis derailed Harding's career. All of a sudden, Kuemper went from “Goalie of the Future” to “You’re Our Only Hope, Kid.”
Kuemper would eventually find success in the league, but not with Minnesota. He wasn’t ready to take over the Wild’s net at age 24, necessitating Minnesota’s acquisition of Devan Dubnyk. Soon there was no need for a Goalie of the Future, particularly one who was 26 and struggled mightily.
For the first time since then, the Wild have a bona-fide Goalie of the Future Candidate. 23-year-old Kaapo Kahkonen has gone from fringe goalie prospect to putting himself on the map this season. Kahkonen won the AHL’s top goaltender honors after putting up a .927 save percentage and seven shutouts through 34 games. He even put up a respectable .913 save percentage in five games with the big club.
That’s the good news. The potentially bad news? Minnesota may need to rely on Kahkonen as soon as this summer. The Wild’s goaltending is their Achilles Heel, ranking 29th in the NHL. Minnesota may turn to Kahkonen in the opening round of the playoffs should Devan Dubnyk and/or Alex Stalock struggle. And with both parts of Minnesota’s tandem on the wrong side of 30, Kahkonen may find himself relied upon next year.
There is a scenario where Kahkonen, who turns 24 in August, is ready to thrive with a big NHL workload. But how likely is that to happen? Let’s take a look at recent history to find out. Here’s every rookie who started 25 or more games at the ages of 23-25 over the last decade.
The outcomes vary wildly, from Mike Condon taking his lumps filling in for an injured Carey Price to Jordan Binnington winning the Stanley Cup. But on average this group of starting-caliber rookies started 34 games with a .912 save percentage. That’s probably a good, realistic expectation for Kahkonen in his rookie season.
There are some encouraging signs for Kahkonen. For one, the two biggest and most recent success stories, Binnington and Elvis Merzlikins, were behind top-three defenses. Minnesota was a top-three defense in six of the past eight season, and finished fourth in the other two. With their defensive structure intact, that doesn’t figure to change.
Kahkonen is also one of the more successful AHL goalies of this group. Looking at how these goalies fared in the AHL the year before their rookie NHL season, only one played in more games with a better save percentage than Kahkonen had. That would be Jake Allen, who also won the AHL’s Top Goaltender honors. Though it should be mentioned Binnington, Anton Forsberg and Linus Ullmark had significant workloads with a similar save percentage.
Even with some things in Kahkonen’s favor, nothing is guaranteed for next year. Or the years after that. We don’t know the outcomes of this entire group, but the ones whose fates we know are a mixed bag. Dubnyk and Kuemper both had years they were among the league’s best, though both changed teams first. Allen is an NHL goaltender, but a prime candidate for needing a change of scenery. Condon, Forsberg, Louis Domingue and Mike Hutchinson combined for five NHL games last season.
It’s impossible to say whether Kahkonen is ready for the NHL or not. For every Kuemper who was thrust into the NHL too early, you can point to a Sergei Bobrovsky, John Gibson or Connor Hellebuyck who thrived in the NHL at an even younger age. You can’t know until you see how the player performs, at least from an outsider perspective.
So, can Minnesota rely on Kahkonen? That’ll be one of the biggest questions for next season. But given that the most we can reasonably count on is 34 games of a .912 save percentage, Minnesota had better have a backup plan. 34 starts for Kahkonen leaves 48 starts left for the Wild to fill for next year. Do they feel confident in either Dubnyk or Stalock handling that workload next year, especially since it represents a fleeting opportunity for this version of the Wild’s competitive window?
Kevin Fiala will be in the last season of his contract and will get a big raise from his current $3 million cap hit. Next year may be the only year of Kirill Kaprizov’s entry-level contract, which will pay him less than $3 million even if he hits all his bonuses. The Wild may break up their vaunted top-four defense by next summer. And how many more good years can Minnesota get out of Zach Parise, Ryan Suter and Eric Staal?
Even with a Goalie of the Future in Kahkonen, Minnesota can’t count on him being the Goalie of Right Now. And trusting Dubnyk or Stalock to handle what Kahkonen can't is a massive risk.
General manager Bill Guerin is going to have to address this if he wants Minnesota to compete next season. The Wild need a goalie they can count on to start 40 or more games, regardless of what happens with Kahkonen. Fortunately there are decent options in both free agency (Jacob Markstrom and Robin Lehner) and on the trade market (Matt Murray and Alexander Georgiev). The price for either route may be costly, but missing the playoffs next year will be even costlier.