Can Kevin Lankinen Win the Blackhawks' Starting Role?

Despite a loss in his NHL debut, Kevin Lankinen has made a career out of proving people wrong. Could he realistically have a shot at becoming a starting goaltender this season? That's not out of the question.
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Kevin Lankinen

Kevin Lankinen

Well, at least you can't say you didn't expect it. The Chicago Blackhawks have a problem in the crease.

There was a time last year where the Blackhawks could rely on goaltenders Robin Lehner and Corey Crawford to get the job done. But Lehner was moved to Vegas at the trade deadline and Crawford left for New Jersey over the off-season before calling it a career, leaving Chicago's goaltending situation to two guys with no NHL starting experience: Collin Delia and Malcolm Subban.

Yeah, it's hard to get excited about a duo like that. As backups? Sure. But who in the world was going to be the No. 1? Through four games - all losses - there's no clear favorite. And that's concerning, even if it's exactly what everyone thought would happen.

It took four games for the Hawks to invoke the need for a third goalie. Meanwhile, Edmonton's Mikko Koskinen, Ottawa's Matt Murray, Anaheim's John Gibson, St. Louis' Jordan Binnington and Calgary's Jacob Markstrom have started each of their team's games so far, with varying success. 

So, in comes Kevin Lankinen. Never heard of him? He made his NHL debut on Tuesday evening, falling in a 5-4 overtime loss to the Florida Panthers. Sure, five goals against isn't much to get excited about, but for an unexpected NHL entrance, he didn't look all too bad. Here's a quick goal breakdown in case you missed the game: a breakaway goal, a power-play marker, a rebound off of a breakaway, another power-play goal and a cross-crease overtime winner. None of the five were overwhelmingly Lankinen's fault, and he definitely could have used more support - but that's been a problem through four games, no matter who's in net.

If you've watched Lankinen at any point in his career, you know that he comes up clutch when he needs to. His game was highlighted by a nice one-timer stop in overtime, sparking a bit of hope momentarily into a team that needed as much help as they could get.

"Throughout my career, I’ve been able to make the big save in the big moments," Lankinen told reporters following his debut. "Obviously, I would have liked to have had the last one, too, but I did my best."

Further proof of his ability to come up big was highlighted by one of the best goaltending performances from the past decade at the World Championship when Lankinen helped the Finns win a shocking gold over Canada in 2019. With Matt Murray, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Henrik Lundqvist and Philipp Grubauer tending the crease for their respective nations, Lankinen - a then-24-year-old AHL backup was not expected to be one of the best. 

With just 19 AHL games under his belt and none in the NHL at the time, the expectations were rather low for Lankinen and the Finns, who didn't have a single full-time NHLer on the roster. But Lankinen's heroic 32-save performance against Russia in the semifinal led the feisty Finns to the championship game. Lankinen was spectacular throughout the tournament with a 1.50 GAA and .942 save percentage. Lankinen ultimately lost the top goalie award to Vasilevskiy, but Lankinen cemented himself in tournament lore for the near future.

But that's not the NHL, and Lankinen hadn't really proved anything in North America up to that point. Despite playing in the all-star game, Lankinen wasn't even a starter in the minors last year, sharing the Rockford IceHogs crease with Delia and Matt Tomkins. Lankinen was solid given the lackluster effort in front of him all season, but nothing suggested he'd be a real contributor at the NHL level.

It's still early, but the Hawks can't keep farting around when it comes to goaltending choices. Delia seemed like the one with the most potential, but with a GAA of 5.00 through two games and an abysmal early minus-3.88 goals-saved-above-average, he simply wasn't good enough in his early starts. Subban allowed five goals in his one start, too - starting to sound familiar? Both are older, more experienced options, and until the team takes the netminding situation seriously again, it's going to be a bit rocky.

“He hasn’t had a chance yet, so we want to give him the opportunity,” coach Jeremy Colliton said before the game. “We’ve said we want to look at all three guys and we’ll let their performance dictate where they go from here.

So why not just roll with it and give Lankinen another shot? The Hawks were simply outplayed by Florida for the majority of the game, only really showing life at even strength during the second period. Subban and Delia have combined for 87 games played in their NHL career, so the Hawks know a bit about what they're capable of. Lankinen is still a relatively new commodity, and after a bit of an adjustment period to the North American game over the past two years, you can tell Lankinen felt confident on Tuesday. 

“As the season goes on, the game’s going to settle down,” Lankinen said. “I’ll make better reads because you have that game feeling.”

The Hawks don't have much to lose against Detroit on Friday, so it wouldn't be surprising to see if Colliton goes back to his freshmen netminder to see if his confidence can stick. It's not like the Red Wings are going to go out and embarrass the Hawks - they're both similarly bad, but they know it - so why not give him another shot after helping the Blackhawks to their first point of the season?

It's far too early to abandon Delia or Subban at this point, but you don't start your third goalie four games into the season if your top two guys are healthy if you're confident in what you got. It's anyone's crease at this point in the juncture, but it's worth noting that Lankinen, who started the season on the taxi squad, is waiver exempt, while Subban and Delia are not. That alone might put Lankinen as the odd-man-out unless they bring him back over the next few games and he impresses.

The Blackhawks are in a full rebuild and the pre-season losses of Jonathan Toews and Kirby Dach didn't help things. This season is all about experimenting, so there's no loss in giving Lankinen a shot. He either runs with it or you go back to the two guys you planned for - it's worth a try.

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