The Chicago Blackhawks goaltending situation has been messy, to say the least.
After an incredible 10-season run that included two Stanley Cup titles, two Jennings Trophies and a reputation as one of the NHL’s elite netminders, the departure of long-time starting goalie Corey Crawford left a huge hole in the Chicago Blackhawks lineup. After enduring a 3-2 OT loss to the Nashville Predators on Wednesday, Chicago now sits sixth in the Central Division with a 2-3-2 record, playing behind an offense helped by surprising performances from former Swiss League star Pius Suter, and checking forward Matias Janmark.
In net however, the team’s two “main” options, Malcolm Subban and Colin Delia, have struggled with a combined 0-3-1 record, leading the Hawks to turn to, and find an unexpected starter, in Kevin Lankinen. A backup for most of his five seasons in the SM-Liiga, Lankinen signed with the Hawks as an undrafted free agent in May of 2018. After spending his first two seasons with the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs, he now finds himself with an unlikely opportunity, in an NHL season that’s thus far seen plenty of them.
Kevin Lankinen has Become an Unlikely Starting Option for the Chicago Blackhawks.
After enduring an incredibly up and down 2019-20 season that saw the Blackhawks stumble into the Playoffs with a 32-30-8 record, General Manager Stan Bowman had numerous unanswered questions heading into the offseason. Former Buffalo Sabres starter Robin Lehner had been brought in during the 2019 off-season on a one-year deal worth $5 million, posting an immensely impressive 25-13-5 record with a 2.13 GAA and 6 shutouts for the New York Islanders in 2018-19, earning the Bill Masterton and Jennings Trophies.
While Crawford’s struggles from the year previous continued, Lehner was the main reason the Hawks ultimately found themselves in the 24-team postseason, posting a 16-10-5 record with a .918 save percentage. However, with the team’s Playoff hopes seeming slim prior to the NHL season’s suspension due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, Lehner was traded to the Vegas Golden Knights in exchange for merely a Fifth Round pick. While Crawford put together a solid performance in the postseason as the Blackhawks shocked the Edmonton Oilers in the Qualifying Round, before falling to the Golden Knights in the First Round, the team had no true second option, and at 36 years old, Crawford’s future was uncertain.
Ultimately, Chicago’s front office opted to not re-sign Crawford, with him signing a two-year deal with the New Jersey Devils, before ultimately retiring prior to the start of the season. With this, the team now had no true first option, let alone a second option. So, what did they do when faced with this situation? Nothing. Instead of acquiring a goaltender from Free Agency or making a trade for a bare starter at best like Carter Hutton or Marcus Högberg, Bowman opted to run with two unproven backups in Subban and Delia.
A former First Round pick of the Boston Bruins in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, Subban’s career has been a rollercoaster to say the least. The brother of New Jersey Devils defenseman and former Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban, Malcolm played just two games for the Bruins between 2013-14 and 2016-17, spending the majority of the time with AHL Providence. After being claimed off waivers by the Golden Knights, though, Subban seemed to find his groove, posting a 13-4-2 record in 2017-18, earning the backup job behind Marc Andre Fleury. However, after enduring a rough 2019-20 season, Subban was traded to the Hawks at the trade deadline as a compensation of sorts for Lehner.
For Delia, an undrafted free agent out of Merrimack College, he found himself with a chance in the Hawks net more so out of necessity rather than because of solid play, having posted merely okay numbers with the IceHogs. So far this season, it’s been a similar story, having allowed five goals each in his first two games. While the Hawks have also fell victim to struggles on both offense and defense, primarily with their depth, Delia and Subban have still struggled to adapt, with Subban getting his first non-loss of the season on Wednesday.
Lankinen, for the most part, has come from a background similar to most overseas players migrating to the NHL, depth and or star players in leagues like the KHL, Liiga, and NLA, who hope to see an opportunity on NHL ice. For Lankinen, in spite of posting mediocre numbers on a consistently weak IceHogs team, has taken his first NHL chance and ran with it, posting a 2-0-1 record with a 2.63 GAA in his first three games. He’s seemed unflappable in net at times and is consistently poised and calm on a Hawks team that looks flustered at times when faced with an overwhelming number of shots. While Chicago is still in a tough situation overall, with any Playoff aspirations seeming highly unlikely at this moment, Lankinen has at least given them a chance to win, something that could continue to occur should the team’s offense begin clicking more frequently.
While having struggled when given a starting role in nearly every league he’s played in, Lankinen seems to have come out of nowhere to become the Hawks starting option, with most major news and opinion sites not even considering him as an option for the team in 2020-21 season previews. I had certainly never heard of him prior to his NHL debut, but now that here’s here, I think he’s earned the starting job for the time being, at least until either Delia or Subban can sort out their consistency issues, if they ever do.
It’s been a rough start to the season for the Chicago Blackhawks, but in an NHL season unlike any other, the Hawks seem to have found some unexpected help from some unexpected sources, and as we move forward into the 2020-21 season, I have reason to believe Kevin Lankinen could continue to be one such unlikely starting option.