Don't Underestimate the Value Kevin Lankinen Provides the Nashville Predators

The role of backup goalie is less than glamorous, but Kevin Lankinen is providing a service that the Predators and Juuse Saros desperately need and appreciate.
Nashville Predators v Florida Panthers
Nashville Predators v Florida Panthers / Joel Auerbach/GettyImages
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He doesn’t receive a lot of screen time, but Kevin Lankinen is certainly deserving of the Best Supporting Actor Award. You mostly likely know him from his role: Guy sitting on the bench, donning a ball cap, cheering on the team, and his goalie counterpart, Juuse Saros.

But despite the lack of playing time – 21 games and 15 starts this season to be precise – the 28-year-old Finn has been exactly the goalie the Nashville Predators have needed.

In football, they say if you have two starting QBs, you have none. Basically meaning, it’s imperative to have a solid and obvious number one. Well, the same applies to hockey. Unless you have two goalies playing at an elite level, where the only controversy stems from being questioned and second-guessed by fans over that night’s starter, there’s nothing worse than having a murky goalie depth chart.

Rarely have the Predators had to worry about troubles in goal. It’s a position the team has been spoiled with for some time now. This luxury pre-dates Head Coach Andrew Brunette’s tenure and even those who came before him.

But for as great as Saros is, he cannot play all 82 games. When he’s on his game, it would be great to start “Juice” every night. However, it’s an extremely taxing position. Arguably the Predators have been bitten by overplaying Saros this season. There have been those few odd nights where he just doesn’t seem to track the puck well or have that same athletic pop to his game that we have become accustomed to.

Seldom Called Upon, But Always Ready

This is where the value of a quality backup really shines, and Lankinen has been superb for the Predators.

Lankinen has started 15 games this season, and he’s completed all 15 of those contests. He’s one of only 10 goalies to start at least 15 games this year and finish every single one of those starts.

Lankinen has been the definition of dependable. Saros’ much-deserved nights off are truly nights off. He can sit on the bench with the confidence that he will not be thrust into action due to Lankinen’s poor play. This may not be an obvious quality trait, but it certainly helps the coaching staff manage Saros’ workload.

The Helsinki native has a .902 save percentage (SV%) and a 3.03 goals-against average (GAA). They’re not overly world-beating numbers, and they don’t dazzle you on paper, but considering the Predators are averaging 3.23 goals for per game, Lankinen won’t lose you a game, which is something you look for in a true back-up. However, there is something to be said regarding playing time and how that can affect a goalie’s rhythm.

When addressing having three goalies on the roster and therefore affecting playing time, Rochester Americans’ netminder, Eric Comrie said, “Ask any goalie, they don't like it because you lose rhythm, you lose reps, you lose different things."

It certainly seems that one of the biggest battles that backup goalies face is mental. Staying engaged, supporting your teammates in any way you can, and being prepared for irregular playing time, are big responsibilities of the role.

When hitters in baseball get into a groove, the ball seemingly flies out of the stadium with a lot more ease. Maybe they see the ball better, the pitch seems slower, or perhaps both. Well, goalies are probably no different. But that groove is nearly impossible to achieve when they receive infrequent and sporadic playing time.

In his first full season in Chicago, Lankinen was the starter. He sat behind Marc-Andre Fleury the year after but saw considerably more action that season than he has in Nashville. So, his role with the Predators is new, but he has handled it all within stride.

The advantage Lankinen provides is not lost on the Predators bench boss:

"“We’re obviously very lucky here to have two great goaltenders,” Brunette said. “He's gone into some really hard places and some big games this year.”"

Head Coach Andrew Brunette

Which brings us back to those less-than-awe-inspiring stats mentioned earlier. Yes, his save percentage is just a notch above .900 and his goals-against average is higher than 3, but consider who Lankinen has faced this season. He has started against, the Avalanche, Panthers, Golden Knights, Stars (twice), Hurricanes, Maple Leafs, Rangers, Canucks, and Oilers (twice).

Of his 15 starts this season, 13 of those have come on the road. It may not mean much, but going into a hostile environment has an effect on the game, it provides different challenges to home games, and Lankinen has embraced them all.

Lankinen is Refreshing Support, not Seen Since the Saros-Rinne Tandem

While the Predators have had the luxury of elite starting goaltending, they haven’t always had a solid duo. After Pekka Rinne retired, the team had to find Saros’ understudy.

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Let’s go back to the 2021-22 season. David Rittich was Saro’s back up. He finished the season with a 3.57 GAA and a .886 SV%. Rittich was shaky at best, and you had to hold your breath every time he was named the night’s starter. The Predators were no stranger to giving up odd-man rushes and breakaways, and honestly, when you saw the opposition bearing down on Rittich you hoped for the best but expected the worst.

Breakaways are both exciting and nerve-racking at the same time – depending on which side you’re on – as there’s a good chance you’re going to see a goal. Even the best goalies can be humbled when it’s just them vs the shooter. But when it’s Saros standing between the opposing player and the goal, the confidence is dramatically higher.

Saros was sidelined with an ankle injury towards the end of the 2021-22 season, an injury that extended into the playoffs. It was Rittich who stepped in and was relied upon. The results were less than impressive, and the uphill battle that the Predators faced – playing the eventual Cup Champion, Colorado Avalanche – became what felt like an impossible task.

The young Connor Ingram was thrust into duty during Game One. The play of Rittich was simply not good enough. There was much conversation that year about whether the result – a 4-0 series sweep – would have been any different with a healthy Saros, the common consensus was no. But in Game Two, the Predators took the Avalanche to overtime and were perhaps a bounce away from tying the series and changing the result from a sweep to a 4-1 gentlemen’s sweep.

Lankinen is Exuding Confidence and it’s Contagious

Well, that’s what a good backup can provide. The Predators had never been swept in a postseason series before that year, and a backup like Lankinen could have prevented that from happening. Now you may be screaming, “What does it matter? A series loss is a series loss!” But athletes are proud, and being swept never sits well with them. So it would be interesting to ask them if there’s a difference between a 4-0 series loss and a 4-1 exit.

Also, that confidence that fans feel when Saros or Lankinen is in the net, well players feel it too and it affects their mindset. Knowing that a dependable goalie is behind you gives you the freedom to take more chances, pinch a little more often, and be more aggressive in general. That style is the theme of the Andrew Brunette coaching handbook.

The Predators have the same game plan, whether it’s Saros or Lankinen between the pipes and that’s huge. Their identity, something they pride themselves on, remains the same night in and night out.

So, it’s unlikely that you’ll spot fans sporting Lankinen jerseys when you’re wandering around Bridgestone Arena. He may not receive the attention that Saros does, the praise that Roman Josi garners or the adorning love directed Filip Forsberg’s way, but Lankinen is certainly one of the most valuable players the Predators have this season.

Lankinen took time to reflect after his shutout against the Florida Panthers on March 21, saying, “If there's something to be proud of, you definitely should bring it with you and gain confidence from that.”

Well, Lankinen, be proud of the job you’ve done this season. If there was a team award for an underrated MVP, you would certainly be in the discussion.