Kaapo Kahkonen’s routine hasn’t changed much.
After swatting away pucks at practice Monday, the Wild goalie planned to eat lunch and then swing by a coffee shop to unwind with his usual order: dark roast with a touch of milk.
“Sit down, look at people walking by or phone my buddies or FaceTime,” Kahkonen said.
This also would have been his itinerary if he were in the American Hockey League, except in Iowa, Kahkonen would tack on a trip to the grocery store before making dinner.
Now that he’s set up in a hotel in the Twin Cities, there’s no need to shop since he’s dining out instead of staying in to cook. The tweak to his schedule is the result of the more noticeable difference in Kahkonen’s life lately, the one that has him playing in the NHL rather than the minors.
“Sometimes you still kind of think it feels a little unrealistic,” he said.
Destined for another season of seasoning in the AHL, Kahkonen was promoted to the Wild last month when starter Devan Dubnyk stepped away from the team while his wife, Jenn, dealt with a medical situation.
Although this opportunity for NHL ice time was unforeseen, Kahkonen has capitalized on it, and that has flattered him and the Wild.
Not only has he banked experience, winning his first two games to contribute to the team’s recent resurgence, but he has also issued an encouraging, real-time update on how the organization’s goalie pipeline is developing.
“We found out we’ve got a little bit of depth now,” goaltending coach Bob Mason said.
A rare call for help
Since Dubnyk and Alex Stalock emerged as a duo in 2017, the Wild has rarely had to call on someone else to fill out its lineup card.
Before Kahkonen made his NHL debut Nov. 26, becoming the first new goalie to do so in a Wild sweater since Darcy Kuemper in 2013, Dubnyk and Stalock had combined for 198 straight starts, including playoffs.
Still, the organization hasn’t neglected the goalie position amid this consistency, drafting two netminders last year (Hunter Jones and Filip Lindberg) after signing former Gopher Mat Robson.
A 2014 fourth-round pick, Kahkonen has become the face of this younger class by patiently building a body of work that’s helped the 6-2, 214-pound goalie get a preview of the NHL as a 23-year-old.
“When you work hard in practice, you get that confidence,” said Kahkonen, who also backed up Stalock two games earlier this season when Dubnyk was sidelined by an injury. “You get good reps and then you can go play and trust yourself.”
While he roved all over the ice when he started organized hockey at age 6, Kahkonen was drawn to goalie and made it his full-time position by 10. He liked the fact his effort could determine the outcome, and he craved a high-stakes atmosphere even though he didn’t feel the pressure.
“When I was younger, my problem was those games that the rink was empty and there’s nobody watching and it was late at night,” Kahkonen said.
As he progressed through the ranks in Finland, eventually reaching the top league, Kahkonen took his time at each step rather than rushing to advance.
“If you want to be a starting goalie in the NHL, you gotta be a starting goalie somewhere else, too,” said Kahkonen, who won gold with Finland at the 2016 World Junior Championship. “You can’t just be a backup, backup, backup and then hope you get a bounce, and then all of a sudden you’re a starter in the NHL. It’s not going to work like that. So, you need those minutes and those games.”
Ultimately, winning matters
Every level was tougher than the previous one, but what helped Kahkonen attack the challenge was the objective of the sport. No matter what team he’s on or league he’s in, the goal is to win. And if he can’t accomplish that, someone else will.
It’s this business-like approach Kahkonen also is using to tackle his latest stint with the Wild, and it has worked.
Kahkonen followed up a 32-save debut in a 3-2 win over the Devils by backstopping the Wild to a 4-2 victory against the Panthers last Tuesday, posting a .950 save percentage. His 44 saves that game set a franchise record for a rookie goalie, and he’s just the fifth goalie in team history to win the first two appearances of his career.
Kahkonen is expected to get another start for a Wild squad that opens a three-game homestand Tuesday vs. the Ducks.
“He’s played really well,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “The biggest thing is you look for consistency because guys can overachieve early. But we’re hoping that when he does get to play, we see the same things that we’ve seen the last two games from him.”
While he is here to help the Wild, Kahkonen also wants to learn.
Covering the top half of the net, reads and rotations are all areas Mason has identified that can improve, but Mason has been impressed by Kahkonen’s hockey IQ, how he wards off low shots and his quick lateral movement — all of which Kahkonen has displayed with a relaxed yet focused demeanor.
“Now we know, hey, this kid’s got potential,” Mason said.
That might have been scrawled across a progress report from the minors at some point this season, with Kahkonen off to a 7-2-1 start after going 17-14-8 last season in his first pro campaign in North America.
To get that insight firsthand in the NHL, though, is much more meaningful to the Wild — especially from a goalie who wasn’t supposed to be here, who still has moments after practices and games when he is in disbelief about where he is.
“You get to know the guys a little bit and then once you play a couple games, too, they know how you play and you maybe start to gain that trust from your teammates,” Kahkonen said. “It helps a lot and makes you feel like you can be yourself.”