Entering any season, uncertainty in an NHL roster dictates fans' outlook more than anything.
With a roster as stable as the Wild's — the top six forwards and top four defensemen have been a near-lock for the last two seasons — it can feel like being wrapped in a warm blanket of security. It was in net if there was any uncertainty in the Minnesota Wild's roster for the 2021-22 season.
Cam Talbot flourished in his first season with the Wild, but at 34 years old, he was close enough to the age/performance cliff for it to be a concern. His backup, Kaapo Kähkönen, had a mediocre debut in 2020-21 — .902 save percentage and 2.87 goals against average in 24 games — but at 24, he still had tons of room to grow.
So the Wild headed into the 2021-22 season with some confidence. Confidence that Cam Talbot would be able to continue his resurgence from his previous season, or at the very least provide average goaltending and that Kähkönen would adjust to the higher level of competition with some more reps. So how did they fair?
For the first 20 games of the season, we got what we wanted from Talbot in the net. 15 wins in 20 starts, buoyed by a decent — albeit not eye-popping — .920 save percentage and a 2.60 goals against average. It looked like Talbot had come back at the same level, if not better.
The Wild have a reputation for making it easy on their goaltenders by keeping shots primarily to low-danger areas of the ice, and that's a recipe for success.
Unless the defence gets leaky and Talbot can't make up for the team's mistakes.
what the hell happened to the minnesota wild in december pic.twitter.com/FSQl0zw8hG— From Tape to Tape (@fromtapetotape) August 3, 2022
This wasn't just Talbot's problem but also his running mate Kähkönen's. But it was a run of bad defense that bled into a run of lousy goaltending that didn't correct itself. Even after the defense improved and started to play at an average level — limiting opponents to 31.6 shots per game from January 1 to the trade deadline on March 21 (16th in the league) — Talbot struggled to keep the puck out of the net.
In the 15 starts during that span, Talbot went 9-5-0 with a dismal .896 save percentage and a 2.80 goals against average. His performance, and Kähkönen's, put general manager Bill Guerin in a challenging position. Either hope the performance improves for the netminders or actively seek to improve the position. He chose the latter and traded for the reigning Vezina winner, Marc-André Fleury, and Kähkönen was shipped out to the San Jose Sharks.
cam talbot is a good goalie pic.twitter.com/XBIU41UbvH— Hockey Wilderness (@hockeywildernes) February 13, 2022
After the moves, Talbot bounced back a bit and, mostly splitting starts with Fleury, went undefeated in regulation during the final ten starts of the season, going 7-0-3 with a .918 save percentage and a 2.50 goals against average. He made one start in the playoffs in the series against the St. Louis Blues, a game the Wild lost, and Talbot didn't look spectacular.
Talbot's 2021-22 season was his second with the team, and it was more tumultuous than his debut was. It had plenty of ups and downs, but a few key points define why he is now with the Ottawa Senators. After a few down years, Talbot found a resurgence in net for the Wild, but at 34 years old, the cracks were starting to show. His .911 save percentage on the season puts him at 13th for goalies who started 48 or more games. His goals saved above expected — a metric that weighs the number of goals scored against the quality of the shots — was one of the league's worst at -5.8, according to MoneyPuck.com. That would align Talbot with other struggling starters like Carter Hart of the Philadelphia Flyers Carter and Mikko Koskinen of the Edmonton Oilers.
It will be interesting to see how he fairs with his new team in Ottawa, but for the Wild, the Talbot relationship ended when he struggled from December to March. It may have just been a bad stretch of hockey for him, but as the 34-year-old turned 35 in July, those stretches of lousy play are more likely than not.
The AHL Goaltender of the Year in 2019-20 and only 25 years old entering the season, at times, it felt like Kähkönen was earmarked as the future starting goaltender. If he stayed on the trajectory, it was definitely in the realm of possibility.
KAAPO KAHKONEN WHAT A SAVE pic.twitter.com/qVq1HL7B9w— Hockey Wilderness (@hockeywildernes) January 9, 2022
With a cap crunch on the horizon, a looming contract for Kähkönen and his inability to wrestle the starting position away from a struggling Talbot, his future with the Wild was pretty uncertain.
There's no doubt that Guerin would have preferred to move Talbot at the deadline instead of the young Finnish netminder, especially after logging a .924 save percentage, a 2.23 goals against average and a 10-3-2 record in the first half of the season. Kähkönen was leaned on to get the Wild through Talbot's mid-season struggles, but he struggled himself when called upon. Between Game 42 of the Wild's season and the trade deadline, Kähkönen went 2-5-1 with an .880 save percentage and a whopping 3.50 goals against average.
Guerin found himself with a struggling veteran goalie and a young goalie struggling with increased responsibilities.
Kähkönen's career with the Wild ended in a move to acquire defenseman Jacob Middleton from the Sharks. Depending on Fleury's performance this coming season, the progression of Jesper Wallstedt and Kähkönen's performance with the Sharks may be a move Guerin comes to regret.
The reigning Vezina winner was done dirty by his former team, the Vegas Golden Knights — a growing trend for them — shipping him out to the Chicago Blackhawks in a salary dump move in the 2020-21 offseason. As Chicago struggled, so did Fleury.
After his Vezina-worthy campaign where he tallied a .928 save percentage and a sub-2.00 goals against average — 1.98 to be exact — Fleury came crashing down to earth, letting in nearly three goals a game notching a .908 behind a trash-fire Chicago defense. His move to the Wild presented an opportunity to improve his performance behind a much better d-corps, and he did in his 11 regular season starts.
Fleury is locked up for another two years for a total contract value of $7 million and a $3.5 million average annual value. The future Hall of Fame goaltender was decent enough in the regular season for the Wild, posting a .910 save percentage and a 2.72 goals against average. He was locked in the playoff series against the Blues and, despite conceding the final start of the series to Talbot, at times, was the only thing keeping the Wild in the game. He's a special player, has had a remarkable career, and he's still got some tread on the tires.
But there are warning signs. He's 37 — will turn 38 in November — and is already 7th on the all-time games played list for goaltenders with 939. By the end of the season, he will likely eclipse Curtis Joseph, Ed Belfour and Terry Sawchuk. Barring injuries means only Martin Brodeur, Roberto Luongo and Patrick Roy will have played more games in their career. The age-performance cliff is a real thing for goalies — ask Devan Dubnyk — and Fleury just posted a -17.6 goals saved above expected according to MoneyPuck.com, the fourth worst mark in the league amongst all goaltenders, not just starters.
There are warning signs that Fleury might not be able to be an average, let alone elite, goaltender going forward. But maybe an entire season behind the Wild defense can make life that much easier.