Coming into this season, Blackhawks head coach Jeremy Collition had a tough task in front of him.
He was facing a roster seemingly devoid of talent to start the year in a tough central division. No Jonothan Toews, no Corey Crawford, no Kirby Dach and yet he has guided this young Hawks roster to third in the central through 23 games. A big reason for that has been the emergence of rookie net minder Kevin Lankinen.
Hard work paying off
Lankinen hails from Helsinki, Finland, where he was one of the top junior league goalies in Finland despite going undrafted. He played in his native Finland for 5 years, playing in over 100 games in LIIGA (the top pro league in Finland).
He finished his career in Finland with a .919% save percentage and a 2.10 GAA (Goals Against Average). This was impressive and made him garner international attention. What earned him his first NHL contract, though, was his international play for Finland and in the Champions Hockey league (similar to Champions League in soccer).
He played in 19 games, winning 15 with a .920% save percentage and 1.96 GAA. That was when Lankinen attracted NHL attention including a team with a knack for European talent.
First years in America
Lankinen came to America in the 2018-19 season after signing his 2 year entry level deal with the Chicago Blackhawks. He split time between the Rockford IceHogs (AHL) and the Indy Fuel (ECHL).
In his second season in Rockford, Lankinen earned an All-Star bid, posting a .910% save percentage. Lankinen adapted to North American hockey fairly quickly, and had some solid seasons in the AHL for the Blackhawks. Lankinen was not viewed as someone who could be the goalie of the future by the Blackhawks.
Lankinen gets opportunity
Despite Lankinen remaining the number 3 goaltender in the organization with the departures of longtime stalwart Corey Crawford; Lankinen found himself behind both newly acquired Malcolm Subban and undrafted goalie Collin Delia. Rocky play plagued both Subban, and Delia; the latter with rough performances conceding 5 goals against both the Panthers and the Lightning. That opened the door and despite a tough first game, he rebounded to post a .924% save percentage and 2.55 GAA.
While some good goalies were taken in his draft class, it is curious how Lankinen fell through the cracks.
He was overlooked despite strong performances in LIIGA and in the Champions Hockey League, and having garnered the reputation as a playoff performer.
Considering his great size at 6’2″ft 185lbs, it is still surprising that he wasn’t picked up in the NHL Entry Draft. While Lankinen might not be able to sustain his fantastic start I do think he will end up being on the better goalies in the NHL for years to come. With his ability to raise his game for the postseason, good size, and technique, Lankinen will be in the NHL for a long time and the Blackhawks have found their new backbone.