Kevin Lankinen has never lacked confidence.
So when the Blackhawks’ breakout No. 1 goalie from last season heard in July he’d essentially lost the job he’d just earned — the obvious implication when the Hawks acquired reigning Vezina Trophy winner Marc-Andre Fleury — he wasn’t offended. He simply felt even more motivated.
“I still want to be No. 1,” Lankinen said Monday. “That’s my goal. I like to compete. I’m a competitor. I’ve always been competing throughout my whole career. Just having a guy like [Fleury] that’s been through it all, seen it all, he’s going to be a good person for me to — every time in practice — battle with him, just learn something from him.
“If you want to be the best one day, you’ve got to learn from the best, you’ve got to compete with the best, and at the end of the day, you’ve got to beat the best. That’s my point of view.”
When the trade happened, Lankinen was in Helsinki, Finland, enjoying his summer break but also training hard for this season. After Fleury committed to moving to Chicago, he and Lankinen exchanged texts, but Lankinen’s main focus was on himself.
He had identified late last season that finding and tracking the puck through traffic was an area in which he needed to improve. His struggles with that contributed to his April drop-off: After finishing March with a 13-8-4 record and .921 save percentage, he went 4-6-1 with an .881 save percentage over his final 12 appearances.
But without a full team with which to practice, Lankinen and his personal coach had to be creative to replicate those high-traffic situations.
“We pulled out a whole bunch of tires and all these cones,” Lankinen said with a grin. “We put a couple guys in front of the net ... [and some shooters who] used different releases to try to hide their release.”
More recently, Lankinen’s training shifted toward the other area he identified as needing improvement: his ability to play the puck to his defensemen. He and Hawks goalie coach Jimmy Waite have focused on that during training camp.
Lankinen also enters this camp with a better understanding of how the NHL works and how to mentally handle the grind, even as he still awaits — as he has longingly since January — his first start in a sold-out United Center. His unflappability was impressive as a rookie; now he has some of the experience to back it up.
“Coming into the season, you know it’s going to be a rollercoaster of emotions because that’s the way the game of hockey is, basically,” he said. “[It’s about] managing your own nerves and being that cooler self. You don’t want to be too high, you don’t want to be too low, because ... if you just keep doing the right things every single day, you’re going to get the results you want.”
Lankinen and Fleury’s lockers sit right next to each other, and the 26- and 36-year-old goalies are already bonding off the ice. Lankinen described Fleury as simultaneously the “new guy” and a “father figure.” Fleury described Lankinen as “very nice, very polite ... [and] very talented.”
Realistically, there’s no chance Fleury isn’t immediately the Hawks’ No. 1, even if a 60-40 split of the starts makes sense to keep Fleury rested and Lankinen active. But the Hawks are thrilled Lankinen is so eager to battle Fleury for every one of those starts, and Lankinen isn’t trying to hide those ambitions.
“It’s absolutely the attitude we want,” coach Jeremy Colliton said. “We want them to fight for everything they get, and that goes for the other goalies, too. Nothing’s ever written in stone. Stuff can change.
“[Lankinen has] got a great attitude, he’s got a lot of confidence, he’s got a tremendous work ethic and that’ll help him.”