6 Young NHL Goalies Making the Step Up This Season
Every NHL season sees several young or inexperienced goaltenders garner attention for their stellar play. The 2020-21 campaign is no different, with a handful of young netminders earning their share of the spotlight.
Some, such as the Minnesota Wild's Kaapo Kahkonen, are enjoying solid rookie seasons. Others, like the Florida Panthers' Chris Driedger, are making the most of their opportunity after several years shuttling back and forth between the NHL and the minors.
The goaltenders on this list are playing key roles in their respective teams' performances this season. Those efforts could become springboards toward long and successful big league careers.
Here's a look at the six goaltenders, all of whom are 25 or younger, who are stepping up and showing out this season.
New York Rangers rookie Igor Shesterkin is excluded because he already made his leap forward in 2019-20. His performance in 12 games (10 wins, 2.52 goals-against average, .932 save percentage) before the 2019-20 regular season was derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic led to the Rangers buying out longtime starter Henrik Lundqvist last year.
Kaapo Kahkonen, Minnesota Wild
Apart from a five-game stint with the Minnesota Wild in 2019-20, Kaapo Kahkonen spent most of the previous two seasons with their AHL affiliate in Iowa. Winner of the Aldege "Baz" Bastien Memorial Award as the AHL's top goalie last season, the 24-year-old Finn began this season backing up veteran Cam Talbot. However, he's showing the makings of a future starter for the Wild.
After 18 games, Kahkonen has a record of 12 wins and six losses. Nine of those wins were consecutive, setting a franchise record. He also has two shutouts, and among rookie netminders, he sits third in wins and save percentage (.920) and tied for fourth with a goals-against average of 2.34.
Kahkonen proved up to the challenge when Talbot was sidelined for three games in late January by a lower-body injury and another three games in February on the NHL's COVID-19 protocol list. He's returned to the backup role following Talbot's return, but nevertheless, he remains an important part of the lineup as the Wild jockey for a playoff spot in the Honda West Division.
Kevin Lankinen, Chicago Blackhawks
Not much was expected of the retooling Chicago Blackhawks entering this season. Goaltending was considered a weakness following longtime starter Corey Crawford's departure via free agency in October. Among their little-known netminders was Kevin Lankinen, a 25-year-old Finn who spent last season with their AHL affiliate in Rockford.
Lankinen came into this season as an NHL newcomer, but he's playing like a seasoned veteran. He leads all rookie goalies with 26 games played and sits second with 13 wins. He's tied for third in save percentage (.920), while his 2.71 goals-against average ranks sixth. He also has two shutouts on the season.
Thanks in part to Lankinen, the Blackhawks are jockeying with the Nashville Predators for the fourth and final playoff spot in the Discover Central Division. The Hawks face a stiff challenge securing a postseason berth, but Lankinen's efforts should give them a fighting chance.
Alex Nedeljkovic, Carolina Hurricanes
After spending all but five games with the Carolina Hurricanes' former AHL affiliate in Charlotte over the past three seasons, Alex Nedeljkovic began this campaign on their taxi squad. Activated on an emergency basis after starter Petr Mrazek suffered a broken thumb on Jan. 30, the 25-year-old is making the most of this chance to prove himself at the NHL level.
Splitting the duties with James Reimer, Nedeljkovic has a record of eight wins, three losses and two overtime defeats in 13 games. He leads all rookie goalies with a 2.05 goals-against average and .927 save percentage. He's also had two shutout performances and was named NHL Rookie of the Month for March.
With Mrazek returning soon, Carolina could face a logjam between the pipes, but Nedeljkovic could become part of the Hurricanes' foreseeable future. On March 26, The Athletic's Sara Civian reported general manager Don Waddell hinted at shopping a goalie at the trade deadline for help elsewhere in his lineup. Perhaps he will move Mrazek or Reimer, who are slated to become unrestricted free agents this summer.
Jake Oettinger, Dallas Stars
Jake Oettinger was behind veterans Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin on the Dallas Stars' goaltending depth chart last season. He only saw spot duty in two playoff games last year after Bishop suffered a knee injury. With Bishop sidelined until mid-April as he recovers from offseason surgery to repair his torn meniscus, the 22-year-old is sharing goalie duties with Khudobin.
After two seasons in the minors, Oettinger made the most of his opportunity last summer to practice and learn with the Stars during their run to the 2020 Stanley Cup Final. He's steadily seen his playing time increase over the course of this season as the coaching staff grows increasingly confident in his abilities.
In 17 games, Oettinger sits tied for fourth with Kahkonen in goals-against average (2.34) among rookie netminders, while his .909 save percentage ranks sixth. His promising performance could leave the Stars comfortable with leaving Khudobin unprotected in next summer's expansion draft because of Bishop's no-movement clause.
Ilya Sorokin, New York Islanders
After spending eight seasons playing in the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia, Ilya Sorokin finally made the jump to the New York Islanders this season. Employed as Semyon Varlamov's backup, he's gradually been seeing more NHL gameplay over the course of the schedule.
The 25-year-old has seen action in 12 games thus far, gaining experience and confidence with each start. He set a franchise record for rookie Islanders goaltenders with eight consecutive wins and has collected two shutouts. He's also fifth in wins among NHL rookie goalies with nine and sits second in goals-against average (2.24) among this season's crop of newbie netminders.
Sorokin has benefitted from a strong Islanders defense and some games against lesser opponents such as the Buffalo Sabres. Nevertheless, he's steadily adjusting to the North American game, providing Isles fans with a glimpse of a promising future between the pipes.
Vitek Vanecek, Washington Capitals
The Washington Capitals approached this season hoping to have a tandem of Ilya Samsonov and Henrik Lundqvist between the pipes. With Lundqvist out for the season because of heart surgery and Samsonov missing 17 games because of COVID-19 protocols, they turned to Vitek Vanecek, who spent the past four seasons with their AHL affiliate in Hershey.
Despite his lack of NHL experience, Vanecek has provided the Capitals with solid goaltending. He leads all rookie netminders with 14 wins, is second in games played with 25 and sits seventh with a 2.79 goals-against average and .906 save percentage.
Vanecek has had fewer starts in March since Samsonov took over the starter's role after returning to action on Feb. 28. Nevertheless, the 25-year-old Czech proved to be a reliable backup for the Capitals during a difficult part of the schedule. His performance could convince Washington management not to seek a more experienced netminder for the remainder of the season.
Stats accurate heading into April 2 and via NHL.com.