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Kevin Lankinen for Calder Trophy? Blackhawks goalie has a legitimate chance

Most of the NHL’s projected top rookies have underperformed this season. Lankinen, meanwhile, has gone 5-1-3 with a .933 save percentage, quickly scaling the leaderboard.

Kevin Lankinen’s stellar start has him rising in the Calder Trophy conversation.
AP Photos

At No. 1, there’s Lightning stalwart Andrei Vasilevskiy.

At No. 2, there’s Blackhawks rookie Kevin Lankinen.

That’s how the NHL goaltending leaders stand in terms of Goals Saved Above Average, which calculates the difference between how many goals a goalie has allowed and how many a league-average goalie would have allowed against the same number of shots.

That’s remarkable company for Lankinen, who arguably has become the NHL’s biggest breakout star of 2021. If he maintains this level of performance, he has a legitimate chance to win the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year.

Lankinen, 25, has run away with the Hawks’ No. 1 goalie job, starting nine of their last 11 games and recording a 5-1-3 record and a .933 save percentage.

He ranks first in the NHL in goaltending Point Shares — Hockey Reference’s stat that measures individual contributions toward team victories — second in the aforementioned Goals Saved Above Average and fifth in save percentage.

That makes him one of the NHL’s best goalies through the first quarter of the season. Only Vasilevskiy and the Ducks’ John Gibson are even close in Point Shares, and the Avalanche’s Philipp Grubauer — ranked third in Goals Saved Above Average — is nearly two goals saved behind Lankinen. (Lankinen, meanwhile, is .09 goals saved behind Vasilevskiy for first.)

Most impressive is that Lankinen’s success hasn’t startled him at all. His innate calmness and self-confidence, combined with the support of the Hawks’ team leaders, make him come across like a leader himself.

‘‘We’ve played a lot of hockey against really good teams here,’’ Lankinen said shortly after saving 34 of 35 shots in the Hawks’ 2-1 overtime victory Tuesday against the Stars. ‘‘We’ve still got a lot of young players who are just going to get better from here.

‘‘Gaining confidence every single day, and every experience is a new one. We’re on the right path, and we’ve just got to keep working hard because we’re a hard-working team.’’

Understandably nowhere to be found on the season-opening odds list to win the Calder Trophy, Lankinen has surged to sixth on the leaderboard at 10-1, according to Sports Betting Dime.

The opening month wasn’t particularly good for rookies in general, helping Lankinen’s case. Only the Wild’s Kirill Kaprizov has lived up to expectations among the projected top contenders, and his nine points in 11 games aren’t earth-shattering. The Rangers’ Alexis Lafreniere has one point in 11 games (Lankinen, who earned an assist Tuesday, has as many points as he does), and the Senators’ Tim Stutzle has struggled defensively despite his six points.

Hawks forward Pius Suter (eight points) ranks second to Kaprizov in rookie scoring, emphasizing the uninspiring nature of the Calder race. That opens the door for a goalie such as Lankinen to vie for the trophy, which a goalie hasn’t won since Steve Mason in 2009.

The Blue Jackets’ Elvis Merzlikins and the Devils’ Mackenzie Blackwood finished fifth and sixth, respectively, last season, but neither boasted the combination of big workload and results that Lankinen has to date. Merzlikins had a .923 save percentage but started fewer than half his team’s games. Blackwood was the Devils’ clear No. 1 but posted only a .915 save percentage.

The case of then-Penguins goalie Matt Murray in 2017 is more concerning. Murray made 47 starts and went 32-10-4 with a .923 save percentage, but he finished fourth in the Calder voting behind Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine and Zach Werenski.

Still, this 2021 class — as long as Lafreniere continues to underperform — doesn’t feature anyone like Matthews.

And Lankinen’s out-of-the-blue emergence adds a storybook narrative to his Calder campaign that Murray, who won 15 playoff games and the Stanley Cup the year before his official ‘‘rookie’’ season, already had expended.

With every passing start, Lankinen’s candidacy looks better and better.