Zulgad: Why not Kaapo? Wild would be wise to start Kahkonen vs. Canucks

Wild Devils Hockey
Minnesota Wild goaltender Kaapo Kahkonen (31) defends his net during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the New Jersey Devils Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019, in Newark, N.J. The Wild won 3-2. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

The Wild find themselves in an interesting situation as they prepare to face Vancouver in the NHL’s qualifying tournament in the Western Conference bubble in Edmonton. On one hand, the Wild have a chance to play it safe in an attempt to pursue the Stanley Cup in the league’s return to play. On the other, general manager Bill Guerin and coach Dean Evason have been given the perfect opportunity to get a sneak peek of the future for their franchise.

The latter scenario would involve some risk but the reward could be great. This is most true in goal, where the Wild currently have four netminders in camp, including Devan Dubnyk, Alex Stalock, Kaapo Kahkonen and Mat Robson. The competition for the starting job when the Wild resume play on Aug. 2 should be between Dubnyk, Stalock and Kahkonen. Ideally, it would be Kahkonen who gets the starting assignment.

Kahkonen, who will turn 24 on Aug. 16, was selected in the fourth round of the 2014 draft by the Wild and is coming off a season in Iowa in which he led the AHL in victories (25) and shutouts (seven) and recorded a .927 save percentage. Kahkonen was voted the best goalie in the AHL. He also appeared in five games for the big-league club and went 3-1-1 with a 2.96 goals-against average and .913 save percentage.

The Wild’s goaltending situation is far from stable with Dubnyk coming off a difficult season and Stalock having assumed the starting role but probably best suited to be the second goalie. What better way is there to find out what Kahkonen is capable of than putting him in a high-pressure situation and seeing how he does?

There is an opportunity here for the Wild’s brain trust to take this summer-time tournament and try to learn about a future that could be pretty bright if the right moves continue to be made. It will be even brighter if the Wild gets bounced by the Canucks and comes away with the top overall pick in the NHL lottery. That chance exists because the first go-around of the lottery determined that the top pick will go to one of the teams that loses in the qualifying round. Those clubs each have a 12.5 percent chance to get the first pick and take Quebec Major Junior Hockey League standout left winger Alexis Lafreniere.

Guerin already knows he needs to find a top-line center — that player isn’t in the organization — but the goaltending situation isn’t as clear and now is a chance to get a start on making an extremely important decision.

Dubnyk will be entering the final season of the six-year, $26 million contract he signed in 2015. The 34-year-old was the Wild’s top goalie for several years, but the 2019-20 season was a tough one for him both on and off the ice. Dubnyk was away from the team for a time as his wife was dealing with a health issue. He went 12-15-2 in 28 starts and 30 games, posting a 3.35 goals-against average and .890 save percentage.

Stalock, who will turn 33 on July 28, made the most of his opportunity to start on a regular basis and went 20-11-4 in a career-high 38 games and 36 starts. He had a 2.67 goals-against average and .910 save percentage. Stalock started nine of the 12 games after Evason replaced Bruce Boudreau as the Wild’s coach on Feb. 14 and went 6-3 with a 2.46 goals-against average, a .918 save percentage and a shutout.

Wild officials have said the best goalie in camp leading up to the qualifying round will win the starting job, but it sure looks as if the competition is between Stalock and Dubnyk. The Wild played their first scrimmage of camp on Saturday and Stalock and Dubnyk both played the first two periods. Stalock’s team led 3-1 after two and he was the sharper of the two netminders, making several nice saves in the middle period. Kahkonen did play the third period and did not give up a goal.

If a decision already has been made that one of those two is going to start the Aug. 2 opener, Evason almost certainly has to be set on Stalock. Not only was he Evason’s choice before the season was put on pause, but with the way Evason likes to push the pace of play, Stalock gives his team the advantage of being able to move the puck quickly to his defensemen so that the tempo doesn’t have to be slowed. Dubnyk isn’t nearly as comfortable helping get his team into transition.

The problem is that if Kahkonen is left out of the equation, how comfortable are the Wild going to be about their goalie situation heading into next season? The future is more important to this franchise than the present so why not take this opportunity to learn as much as possible?