Jun 17, 2020

I’ve spent a lot of time this offseason blogging about the great success had by Iowa Wild players this season.  And it feels like there’s still so much more to delve into – from Nico Sturm’s impact as a rookie, the outstanding year put forth by defenseman Brennan Menell, center Luke Johnson’s goal scoring spree at the end of the season, etc.

But today, it’s a look at the record-breaking season put forth by goaltender Kaapo Kahkonen, the “Baz” Bastien Award winner, as the AHL’s top goalie.

In his rookie campaign of 2018-19, Kahkonen became the first Wild player (skater or goalie) to win an AHL monthly award, as he nabbed the CCM / AHL Goaltender of the Month honors in November, 2018. He finished his first season in North America with 17 wins, an AHL-best 6 shutouts and represented Iowa at the 2019 AHL All-Star Classic.

Fast forward to this season, where Kahkonen assumed the number one goaltender duties (remember, veteran Andrew Hammond led the Wild’s charge late in the 2018-19 regular season and during their 2019 Calder Cup Playoffs run).

And, with the pressure of being the go-to guy, Kahkonen did not disappoint:

  • 25 wins to lead the AHL, while breaking an Iowa single-season record (23 – Alex Stalock in 2016-17)
  • Led the league with 7 shutouts, becoming the first goalie since Martin Biron (1997-99) to accomplish that feat in back-to-back seasons
  • Allowed two goals or fewer a whopping 22 times in 34 games, including 11 of his last 12 starts
  • Broke the club record with seven straight wins from 1/24 – 2/19
  • Finished the season going 10-1-1 with five shutouts!
  • Home & Road splits: Home: 15-4-1 / Road: 10-2-2 (started 6-0-0 away from home)
  • Won CCM / AHL Goaltender Of The Month in February
  • Named a First Team AHL-All Star (end of season award)
  • Played in the first five games of his NHL career (3-1-1 record)

However, his last appearance ended on a down note, as the Finnish-born netminder suffered a left hand injury on an overtime goal, which pushed the San Jose Barracuda past the Wild on March 2.  Diving back for the puck which he thought might not have already crossed the goal line, Kahkonen landed awkwardly on his glove hand, sustaining the injury.  Rookie Mat Robson started in net the last four games prior to the AHL season suspension, and ultimately, cancellation.

When I last chatted with Kahkonen, he said his hand was healthy and ready to go, which could be important if the Minnesota Wild / NHL return to play and Kahkonen is called upon.

“You just have to try to do your best to keep yourself in shape and be as ready as possible whenever that happens”, Kahkonen said to reporters on a Zoom call in late May.

The 2014 Minnesota Wild draft pick (4th round) also noted how much more comfortable he felt this season, as opposed to last.  Remember, entering the 2018-19 season, Kahkonen had never lived in the United States, he was still adjusting to the English language and he knew almost nothing about Des Moines – from places to live, restaurants and grocery stores, the setup at Wells Fargo Arena – you name it, it was all new to Kahkonen.

“The next year you come back and all those kinds of things are much easier for you and you know what to expect”, Kahkonen said in regards to his arrival back to Des Moines this past September. “You play a little bit, you get to know guys and coaches, the staff and management. It’s way easier to come in for your second or third year and contribute…I think I learned a lot from the first year [in North America].”

“For Kaapo that was the biggest adjustment,” Iowa goaltending coach Frederic Chabot said in reference to the factors away from the rink that can affect a European-born player. “He was comfortable with everything [this past season] and just went out and played – and played really well.”

That increased comfort level showed during his record breaking season, one which saw Kahkonen shatter a bunch of Iowa’s goaltending records (as noted above), while helping this year’s club to the best regular season points percentage in franchise history.

“We really didn’t lose too many games”, Kahkonen noted.  “And when you win that many games you actually remember the games you lost and the feeling after that and then you win again…I probably never had a season or a team I’ve been part of that won that many games in a single regular season.  It’s way more fun when you win games.”

To his point, Kahkonen suffered just six regulation losses in 34 games. Pretty impressive. Now, look at it from the flip side, meaning in 28 of the 34 games where Kahkonen started in net, Iowa gained at least one point in the standings.  That’s a remarkable 82.3% of the time.

Since the first Iowa Wild season (2013-14), here’s a list of the AHL goaltenders to appear in at least 30 games and lose six or fewer contests in regulation:

  • 2014-15: Jussi Rynnas of the Texas Stars went 22-6-8 (39 games played)
  • 2016-17: Zane McIntyre of the Providence Bruins finished 21-6-2 (31 GP)
  • 2017-18: Eddie Pasquale – split season between Bakersfield and Syracuse – went 16-6-5 (31 GP)
  • 2019-20: Connor Ingram of the Milwaukee Admirals went 21-5-5 (33 GP)
  • 2019-20: Kahkonen 25-6-3 (34 GP)

Pretty short list, eh?

Now, it should be noted that had Kahkonen stayed healthy AND the season not have been halted, his numbers could have been different.  Maybe he hits a skid, maybe he keeps it rolling…again, it’s the great unknown.

By the way, other than Kahkonen, Ingram probably had the most realistic shot at winning the “Baz” Bastien Award. His numbers were gaudy (21 wins, 1.97 goals against average, .933 save percentage), but he split duties with teammate Troy Grosenick all season long, and he didn’t lead the league in any major goaltending category. So, ultimately, there shouldn’t be much argument about Kahkonen’s merits in claiming some offseason hardware.

Here’s another indicator of just how good Kahkonen (and the team’s defense as a whole) was this season. The Wild faced five teams who wound up scoring 3.25 goals per game or more this season. For context, only 11 out of the 31 teams reached that average.  

Here’s how Kahkonen fared against those teams:

  • Stockton: 3-0-0, 1.65 GAA, .952 SV% (1 shutout)
  • Tucson: No appearances as Kahkonen was recalled to Minnesota both times the clubs met for a two-game set
  • Milwaukee: 3-0-1, 2.21 GAA, .921 SV% (1 shutout)
  • San Jose: 0-1-1, 1.97 GAA, .929 SV%
  • San Diego: 1-0-0 (35-save shutout on February 14th at home)

That’s a total record of 7-1-2 (including 3 shutouts) and a combined 18 goals allowed in 10 starts…really impressive stuff to say the least.

When in Iowa, Kahkonen was leaned on like a true number one goaltender.  He was called upon to stop the bleeding if the team was in a funk, to backstop the club on the road in hostile environments, to set the tone for a two-game set against the same opponent….and he delivered more times than not.

Kahkonen went 6-3-1 in the 10 games he started following a non-win. That doesn’t necessarily mean he played both games, but just scenarios where Iowa failed to earn a victory in the previous outing.

Surprisingly, the soon-to-be 24-year-old goalie, didn’t play much in the second game of a back-to-back. Part of that was due to multiple recalls to the NHL, part of it just circumstance / decisions made by the coaching staff.

But one situation which stands out, and was even noted by Kahkonen in that conference call with reporters, was a two-game set in Cedar Park, Texas, in late February.

Iowa’s struggles in the state of Texas were well documented since Kahkonen arrived to the organization, and even prior to that. The team just couldn’t seem to win in the Stars home building and Kahkonen, individually, had really struggled there.

On February 21st, Iowa lost 4-3, which marked the Wild’s seventh straight game in Cedar Park without a victory. Kahkonen (20 saves on 24 shots), admittedly, didn’t play his best.  The next night, he was flawless. He made 30 saves in a 4-0 shutout win, as the Wild (at least partially) exorcised their Lone Star State demons.

Not that Kahkonen needed to prove much to his teammates that late in the season, but that was a win the team needed, and he came through.

We’ll see what the future holds for Kahkonen, whether it be some late summer duty in the NHL playoffs with Minnesota, a full-time chance in the NHL next season, or another year of AHL work. Either way, it is clear Kahkonen has the mental makeup and physical tools to shut down some of the best scorers in hockey.

“He’s a big body and he’s got good skills,” Chabot said of Kahkonen. “When he’s at the top of his game he’s very calm. He seems to make difficult saves look easy.” 

With his award-winning season now in the books, it’s not hard to figure out why so many Minnesota Wild fans are excited about the potential of Kahkonen donning a Minnesota sweater in the future.

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