Kevin Lankinen returns to Chicago amid strong start with Predators: ‘This is my path’

The eternally cheerful former Blackhawks goalie “went through some emotions” when he landed in Chicago on Tuesday. He boasts a .925 save percentage in his first seven starts for the Predators, however, and has embraced this second chapter of his NHL career.

SHARE Kevin Lankinen returns to Chicago amid strong start with Predators: ‘This is my path’
Kevin Lankinen looks ahead with the Predators.

Kevin Lankinen has played well for the Predators since leaving the Blackhawks.

AP Photo/Julia Nikhinson

Anyone who enjoyed a fancy night out Tuesday at Momotaro, a Japanese restaurant in Fulton Market, would’ve seen a group of athletic Finns occupying one large table.

The ringleader and tour guide would’ve looked strangely like former Blackhawks goaltender Kevin Lankinen.

And, in fact, it was him. Lankinen, now with the Predators, returned to Chicago on Tuesday — for the first time since the Hawks let him walk as a free agent in July — and beelined to his favorite dinner spot.

Even though he spent only two years with the Hawks, his return felt meaningful.

“I went through some emotions,” he said. “I have some great memories from here. My first win, first shutout, first game. Such great people here, too. I’ll forever be thankful to the organization for giving me the opportunity to fulfill my childhood dream.”

As has been the case in most Predators games this season, Lankinen didn’t play Wednesday against the Hawks, instead backing up Juuse Saros.

That’s just how it works in Nashville. Saros is not only one of the NHL’s best goalies but also one of its most indefatigable. In an era in which equal-split goaltending tandems are becoming increasingly common, he still handles a 1970s-esque workload. His 67 starts last season led the NHL.

But it takes a certain type of goalie to function well as a backup to such a dominant starter, and Lankinen has proved to be the correct type.

“Kevin has been excellent,” Predators coach John Hynes said. “What I’ve been most impressed about him is his attitude and the way that he works. In between games that he doesn’t get his starts, he prepares himself so when he’s ready to get in, he can play well.”

Lankinen’s ridiculously friendly, easygoing personality was a real part of why the Predators took the risk on him after his disappointing 2021-22 season with the Hawks (in which he went 8-15-6 with an .891 save percentage). They correctly figured he’d fit into their locker room seamlessly.

Lankinen’s on-ice performance also has rewarded them. He’s 3-4-0 with a .925 save percentage, which tied for sixth in the league entering Wednesday. He has looked much more like the version of himself that emerged out of nowhere as arguably the Hawks’ 2021 season MVP (when he went 17-14-5 with a .909 save percentage).

Predators goalie coach Ben Vanderklok has worked with him on lateral movement and reading plays.

“It’s just a different mindset,” Lankinen said. “Instead of locking in on the shooter, you always have to see all the options. Guys are so good these days at making lateral plays and faking the goalie, then throwing it across and stuff like that. So it’s not only the goalie against the shooter; it’s the goalie against five other guys.”

The Hawks’ decision not to  re-sign the 27-year-old last summer after investing so much in his development — and briefly seeing that investment pay off — was curious, and it remains so.

Beating the Predators’ one-year, $1.5 million offer wouldn’t have been difficult. Replacements Petr Mrazek and Alex Stalock were much older and appeared more injury-prone from the start, and, predictably, their various injury absences have exposed the Hawks’ lack of goalie depth beyond Arvid Soderblom.

That’s all water under the bridge to Lankinen now, though. He and his fiancée have settled into their new house in Nashville, and he has embraced the second chapter of his NHL career.

“It has always been my goal to be a starting guy, be an elite guy in this league,” he said. “Everybody has their own path, and this is my path. I’m trusting my own process here. I’m working hard on a daily basis. And I have a good coach by my side. Whatever the future brings, I’ll be ready.’’

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