Ever since the rumors that the Minnesota Wild were looking to move on from Devan Dubnyk, there were question marks surrounding the future of their goaltending. When the ball finally dropped and the established netminder was traded to the San Jose Sharks, it became clear that they were going to look for a new starter, and a more concrete one at that.
Going into the season with a tandem of regular backup Alex Stalock and rookie Kaapo Kahkonen was a non-starter — no pun intended — for the Wild. It would be a symbolic white flag, months before the season was set to start.
With that in mind, Minnesota was a big player in the goaltending market, exploring trades and free agency. They were planning on having a better tandem no matter what. It all came into fruition just hours after the gates of free agency swung open on Oct. 9, signing 33-year-old free agent goaltender Cam Talbot to a three-year, $11-million deal.
After suffering through the worst tandem of the 2019-20 season, the Wild signed one of the good stories from that season. After having a couple of good seasons with the Edmonton Oilers — including one where he earned a couple of Hart Trophy and Vezina Trophy votes — the Caledonia, Ont. native was traded mid-season to the Philadelphia Flyers, where he had a very forgettable four appearances.
Edging closer to goaltending obscurity, Talbot signed a one-year deal to try and make it again as a regular goaltender for the Calgary Flames. He just so happened to have one of the best seasons in his career, posting a .919 save percentage and was able to come up big in significant moments as the Flames pushed for a playoff spot late in the shortened regular season.
After his quasi comeback season, Talbot earned himself some commitment and the Wild decided to lock up the goaltender for the next three seasons. But what exactly can he contribute to this rebuilding team?
At the age of 33, there isn’t much improvement to look forward to and the looming presence of the age curve is threatening, like driving towards the edge of a cliff in neutral, seeing where the environment will take you. Talbot has had a rollercoaster of a career in the seven years he’s been in the league, but some stability has been earned and Minnesota can benefit from someone that is so used to something different.
Last season, the Wild were one of the best defensive teams in the league. That seems like an evergreen statement, but it was certainly true during the 2019-20 season. Only the Boston Bruins (1.98 xGA/60) had a lower expected goals against rate than the Wild (2.00 xGA/60), meanwhile the team that Talbot had to play behind was below-average in terms of the same metric. The Flames had a mediocre 2.39 xGA/60, good for No. 17 in the rankings.
Even going back a season further to the 2018-19 campaign, the Wild were the top team in terms of expected goals against rate, and Talbot’s Oilers were a measly 22nd among the 31 teams in the league.
But it’s not just measuring the total of expected goals in front of the netminder, but the shots directed at them. When it comes to unblocked shot attempts, the Wild have always had the lower rate of those types of shots against, than Talbot’s team for the last three seasons. Minnesota just knows how to suppress the opposition and hopefully make life easier for their goaltender and that is exactly the hope when it comes to their new starter.
Talbot is used to being on a middling defensive team, but if he is able to get used to the Wild’s defensive superiority, then he might be just what this team needs between the pipes. It’s a lot of ifs but it will no doubt be an improvement over last year’s tandem of Dubnyk and Stalock.
Among the 85 goaltenders that had at least 50 unblocked shot attempts against, the two Wild goaltenders last season ranked 82nd (-16.64) and 85th (-27.49) in goals saved above expected — a metric that simply takes the difference between the expected and actual goals allowed by the goaltender. The Florida Panthers are the only other team that has their regular tandem from that season in the bottom-20 of those 85 goaltenders. Minnesota had to improve and getting a league-average goalie like Talbot should surely do it.
Taking location and shot type into consideration, Talbot’s season comes out just about where an average goaltender is expected to be. Wrist shots and snap shots are the most common types of shots and are the only kind that Talbot lets in more than expected, but barely.
But performing above expectation has been a theme through the 33-year-old’s entire career. In 2018-19, Talbot posted his worst GSAx (-16.31) and even though that would be considered one of the worst goaltending performances from that season, his other years have been promising. Four of his seven seasons have been in the positive side when it comes to goals saved above expected and the other two that were in the negatives, were just below the threshold.
It’s highly unlikely that Talbot will be able to repeat the same level of dominance that he once did during his early years, but he at least has the experience of stealing games, something that neither Dubnyk or Stalock could do realistically last season.
It demonstrates a small glimmer of hope to have some goaltending stability in Minnesota. The pure fact that last year’s Wild team was able to win more games than they lost, despite their extremely poor goaltending, should be a good sign for this team with their new starter. A dash of Minnesota’s defensive prowess, mixed in with Talbot’s past and a handful of his most recent season with the Flames, should combine for a vast improvement in between the pipes for the Wild.
It’s depressing, but really anything would be an improvement. At least Talbot has some promise to be a steady bet.