EDMONTON, ALBERTA – Kaapo Kahkonen was the go-to goaltender for the Wild’s minor league team this season, batting away enough pucks to help Iowa to one of its best performances in franchise history and to get recognized as the American Hockey League’s top goalie.
But when he will get his next opportunity to play is unclear.
“I’m not stressing about anything,” Kahkonen said. “I’m just trying to focus on getting back to the rhythm being on the ice every day.”
The Wild traveled to Edmonton on Sunday, embarking on the Western Conference hub city a week before it starts a best-of-five qualifying-round series against Vancouver during the NHL’s postseason return without having identified its Game 1 starter.
“We’re still communicating and evaluating,” coach Dean Evason said.
Although the call will likely come down to Devan Dubnyk and Alex Stalock, where the organization’s goaltending hierarchy starts, Kahkonen’s credentials could make him a serious option if the team feels it needs to make a change.
“You just have to do your job and hopefully you get to play,” Kahkonen said last week on a video conference call. “If not, then you got to keep yourself ready in case you end up being in net at some point.”
Kahkonen’s strides in 2019-20 didn’t just come at the AHL level.
The 2014 fourth-round pick’s development and potential to be a future starter for the Wild was amplified by his 3-1-1 NHL debut — a string that included the 23-year-old setting the franchise record for most saves in a game by a rookie (44).
Add in his accomplishments in the AHL, such as a league-high 25 wins and seven shutouts to go along with the fourth-best goals-against average (2.07) and save percentage (.927), and the season was a memorable one for Kahkonen.
“It was a great year,” he said. “For me individually … I was more familiar with everything.”
When the AHL season was canceled by the coronavirus pandemic, Kahkonen was sidelined with injury after he got twisted up in the crease in a March 2 game in San Jose. But he’s healed up now and used the downtime in his native Finland to get back to full strength.
“The hand wasn’t ready for shots or anything so I’m like, ‘OK, might as well take it easy with that part,’ ” Kahkonen said. “Just make sure I’m well-conditioned and in shape when I come back. Just do off-ice training and workouts and conditioning and stuff like that. That’s basically all I did before coming over.”
With more practice days and an exhibition game on tap in Edmonton, the Wild will continue to examine Kahkonen. But the impression he’s made so far in training camp has been positive, with scoreless outings in two appearances in intrasquad scrimmages.
“He just competes his butt off,” Evason said. “He comes out of the net sometimes in practice after a drill and he is just gassed because he’s working so hard. He’s a very likable guy. I haven’t seen anything different because of his accomplishments.”
And while Kahkonen’s focus is to treat practice time like a game to stay ready, he and fellow Iowa netminder Mat Robson are also studying Dubnyk and Stalock even though all four are vying to suit up for the Wild in the playoffs.
“Everybody wants to play and there’s four of us and then only one can play in the net, right?” Kahkonen said. “From that standpoint, it’s competitive obviously. [But] all the four guys here, we’re good guys and we support each other. Me and Robby, we’re trying to look [at] Duby and Al, what they do on a daily basis, learn from them since they’re more experienced.
“That’s what you want to do as a younger guy with a little less experience. You want to try to look up to the guys, try to learn from the guys that have been around longer. I think it’s been good.”