Goaltender Kevin Lankinen has gotten off to a potentially historic start for his NHL career after languishing in the AHL and ECHL since signing with the Chicago Blackhawks in May of 2018 and his subsequent extension last April.
That said, the 25-year-old Finland native is just 12 games into his career. Many other goaltenders have flamed out after starting out looking like the second coming of Ken Dryden. Names like Jim Carey, Steve Mason and Andrew Hammond come to mind when you put too many expectations into an unexpected phenom goaltender, though.
Admittedly, Lankinen has looked very poised and confident in the Blackhawks’ net thus far, which should not be overlooked.
That’s the funny thing about the position of goaltending. It has been jokingly referred to as “voodoo,” but that term is not far from the truth. For decades, goalies were just sent out and told to “just keep the puck out of the net.”
In recent years, though, goaltending schools and specialized coaches have turned the position into one of the most intricate in all sports. As a result, consistent goalies have become highly sought after. One thing Lankinen has been is consistent. Through his first 12 games, we have not seen him give up that “really soft” goal or terrible turnover (like the one against Tampa Bay that unfortunately sent Collin Delia to Shame Island).
Lankinen boasts a 7–2–3 record with a 2.29 goals against average and .931 save percentage coming into Friday’s game against Carolina. If he were to keep up at this highly improbably rate, he would rival rookie seasons by such familiar names as Ed Belfour and Tony Esposito.
In 1969, the 26-year-old left-handed Esposito put together a historic rookie season for the Chicago Black Hawks with a 38–17–8 record, 2.17 goals against average, .932 save percentage and 39.6 goals saved above average, which won him the Calder Trophy (rookie of the year), Vezina Trophy (outstanding goaltender) and finished second in the Hart Trophy voting for the league’s most valuable player.
This was following an unspectacular 1968–69 season where he put up a 5–4–4 record, 2.75 goals against average and .919 save percentage with the Montreal Canadiens and was claimed by the Black Hawks in the league’s Intra-League Draft on June 11, 1969. He went on to have a 16-year Hall of Fame career with Chicago.
In 1990, Beflour, a 25-year-old unlikely former college free-agent, stepped into then-Head Coach Mike Keenan’s lineup and proceeded to put up a 43–19–7 record, 2.18 goals against average, .910 save percentage, four shutouts and 44.6 goals saved above average also en route to the Vezina, Calder, Jennings trophies and third place voting for the Hart Trophy.
This was after a very 4–12–3 record, 3.87 goals against average and .877 save percentage two seasons prior. Belfour went on to a similar Hall of Fame career over 17 seasons with Chicago, San Jose, Dallas, Toronto and finally Florida.
The next “guy”?
Can Lankinen keep up these cartoonishly good numbers and end up in Blackhawks goaltending lore like Esposito and Belfour?
Probably not, especially with the team going through an alleged rebuild.
That does not mean Lankinen will not turn out to be a really good NHL goaltender. He has shown many of the tools that other great goalies have displayed. He is calm, composed, measured, well-trained, athletic and resilient. He has generally been in the right position and not overly aggressive in his appearances.
Looking back on all of his previous seasons, in Finland, he consistently posted very high save percentage numbers at most levels, including the assorted Jokerit junior teams and the Finnish national team.
With the Rockford IceHogs last season, he won four of his first five games on the year, combining for a 1.99 goals against average and .937 save percentage during that span. He set an AHL franchise record with 55 saves on 56 shots in a 2–1 overtime win against the Milwaukee Admirals on Dec. 10, 2019.
Lankinen was also selected to represent the IceHogs at the AHL All Star Game last season.
His final numbers were an 8–10–2 record, 3.03 goals against average and .909 save percentage in 21 appearances prior to his season ending shoulder surgery in February.
In a season when Blackhawks fans were told to set expectations low, Lankinen has been one of several pleasant surprises. This success should be taken both with a grain of salt and met with cautious optimism. Due to the COVID-19 division realignment and the travel restrictions, the Blackhawks have faced less than 25% of the other teams and Lankinen has only faced six of 30 other teams. His worst performance—albeit his first—was against the Florida Panthers, whom he has only faced once and is one of the hottest teams in the league. He has also yet to face the Tampa Bay Lightning team that put up 10 goals in two games against the Blackhawks to open the season.
Time will tell, but the excitement is not without some justification. Temper expectations, though.