This offseason, the Chicago Blackhawks added a bonafide superstar goaltender. What does this mean, then, for the guy who led the charge in net last year?
The Blackhawks were extremely lucky that they had Corey Crawford to rely on as a rock-solid starting goalie for nearly a decade, and he was a huge part of two Stanley Cup championships. However, when Crawford retired, the team had some issues finding their next franchise netminder.
Out of a season-long battle between a trio of goaltenders, it appeared that Kevin Lankinen emerged as the Blackhawks’ starter moving into the foreseeable future. That all changed a few weeks ago, however, when the team traded for reigning Vezina Trophy winner Marc-Andre Fleury.
Clearly, Fleury is going to be the team’s starting goalie in the 2021-22 season. However, beyond that, there are questions that start to emerge. Fleury’s contract only runs through next year and seeing as how he reportedly wasn’t keen on a trade to Chicago in the first place, there’s no guarantee that the 36-year-old re-signs with the Blackhawks.
Might this mean, then, that the ‘Hawks will look to try and groom Lankinen to re-take that starting role eventually? After all, he’ll have, at the very least, an entire year to learn from Fleury, and if anything, it should help his game improve. But he can’t ride the bench forever, and Fleury, despite his dominance, obviously won’t be able to start all 82 games either.
So how many starts should head coach Jeremy Colliton give Kevin Lankinen next year? Last season, he found himself in net for 37 out of 56 games, all of which were starts. While this accounts for a majority of the games the team played last year, it also wasn’t anywhere close to the length of a normal campaign.
While Lankinen definitely got a ton of experience and playing time last season, he still hasn’t experienced the grind of being a full-time NHL starter from October to April. Fleury, meanwhile, started over 60 games for 6 straight years with Pittsburgh (not counting the lockout-shortened 2013 season).
Obviously, the team is going to want to try and make the Stanley Cup Playoffs next year. That is evident merely by their offseason moves, and having Fleury start a majority of the games will be key to getting the Blackhawks back to winning form. However, he also won’t be around forever, and I’d be surprised if we didn’t see Lankinen as the team’s starter sooner rather than later.
While most NHL backups typically start around 20 to 25 games in a normal season, I think Lankinen would be better off getting a little more time in net, perhaps around 30 or 32 starts. This isn’t taking anything away from Marc-Andre Fleury, nor am I saying that the Blackhawks shouldn’t use him. However, I don’t want to see the team use Lankinen too sparingly either.
However, if the ‘Hawks are really looking towards the future on this ‘rebuild’, then I think it would be a good idea to not only let Lankinen learn from Fleury next year, but to also give him a decent amount of time between the pipes. I think it will end up serving the team well in the long run.