Unproven and relatively unknown last fall when the organization set eyes on the future, three Blackhawks netminders came into the 2020-21 season with the goal of showing they belonged at the NHL level. It's safe to say, in their own rights, all three proved the future of the Chicago net has very worthy candidates.
"All three of them showed throughout the year that they can play at this level and they can give our team a chance to win," head coach Jeremy Colliton said. "There were ebbs and flows as the season went on, but we would've been naive to think different… I think all three of them showed very positive progression."
Malcolm Subban was the 'veteran' when the season began with 60 NHL starts to his name over five NHL seasons -- nearly all in a backup role to future Hall of Famer Marc-Andre Fleury in two campaigns with the Vegas Golden Knights. Collin Delia had a stretch of NHL action in 2018-19 totaling 16 games with longtime starter Corey Crawford sidelined, but otherwise largely toiled in the AHL ranks over the course of three pro seasons. And Kevin Lankinen, backstop to the unlikely Finnish title at the 2019 World Championship and a 2020 AHL All-Star, entered as the apparent third man in the net rotation.
Video: Best of Lankinen, Subban and Delia in 2020-21
Lankinen, of course, was ultimately the star of the blue-paint show, starting in 37 games -- including 14 of 17 over the first month of his NHL action and eight straight in the height of the postseason push -- and backstopping 17 of Chicago's 24 wins while posting a .909 save percentage and two shutouts. Subban garnered 16 appearances with a .900 SV% and two clean sheets of his own, while Delia bookended the season -- in large part due to the performances of the other two -- with six games, a .902 SV% and a win to his record.
As a whole, no team faced more shots against than the trio as Chicago tied for the league lead (Buffalo) at 33.7 shots against per game. Seven teams, though, allowed more goals against per game and, of the six clubs to average more than 32 shots against per night, none allowed fewer goals than the Blackhawks -- a testament to the shot-stopping abilities all three showed.
"We're a young team, so we gave up a lot of chances and shots against," Colliton said, acknowledging the work still needed defensively in front of the last line. "They were put under a lot of pressure and all three of them showed that they can handle it and on any given night help us win… I thought all three of them did a really good job of being good teammates and when they weren't in, competing in practice and sticking with it and understanding that it's about preparing for your opportunity."
"Kevin had the longest run of the three in-season. He emerged as the guy that stepped forward, but they all had their moments," President of Hockey Operations & General Manager Stan Bowman said at the season's end. "Delia was later in the year and Malcolm had some good stretches in the middle, kind of in support of Kevin."
From seemingly his first NHL game on Jan. 19, Lankinen took the reins of the rotation. Through the team's surprising late January and February stretch, the rookie was a top contender in the Calder Trophy conversation by posting a .924 SV%, the fourth-best mark among all NHL goalies (min. 10 games), and collecting nine wins, second most in the league in that span. He did so while facing a league-high in shots against (516), too.
The team as a whole hit a wall starting with the gauntlet of their March calendar and the rookie netminder was not spared. Still, he earned eight of Chicago's 12 wins over the final two-plus months of the year, six featuring save percentage outings over a .925 clip.
"It was great to see Kevin take that (step forward)," Bowman said. "It was a big workload, a lot of games in a short amount of time and his first experience with NHL action. I think he handled it well."
"He's had a very good season and big step for him in his development," Colliton said. "Went through a lot of different things, some success and also some adversity."
Both Lankinen and the organization hope working his way from odd man out in the opening three games to bonafide starter for the remainder of the season is just the beginning for the 26 year old.
"It's been a crazy season, all in all," Lankinen said as his year came to a close with the penultimate game. "I really enjoyed it, though. Lots of learning lessons. Lots of great experiences and great moments."
"You want to get better every single day and there's lots to build on," he went on to say. "I'm going to have a really good discussion with [goaltending coach] Jimmy Waite… and kind of recap and see where we're at. I'm pretty happy to see where I'm at, but at the same time I know that I want to be better and I want to be a top goalie in this league."
As Lankinen took the majority of the starts, the two goalies that had NHL experience coming into the season continued to do what they'd done in years past: wait for their shot and make the most of it when it came.
Subban, who started the season's opening game and then largely served as relief man the rest of the way, time and time again rose to the occasion despite long stretches without game action. Nine times over the course of the shortened season he started a game following seven or more days off. He posted a 5-3-1 record in those outings with all three losses coming in the aforementioned back half of the year.
"It's not easy when you're playing once every few weeks, but I just try to give my team the chance to win when I'm in there," he said in April. "'Lanks' has been doing great this year. He's had a great season, so you can't be mad about that. Whenever I can get in there, obviously I want to get in there and be a part of things."
"Three goalies is always a challenge, a little bit for the coaches but mostly for the goalies because there's only two nets," Colliton said of the rotation. "Whether it's practice reps or game opportunity, you always want more and that's only natural."
More often than not, that third man was Collin Delia, who went 49 games without touching the ice for the Blackhawks. He earned back-to-back starts in the second and third games of the year before Lankinen got his shot, but then largely sat on the sidelines -- unable to even stay sharp in the AHL with teams required to carry three netminders all year and the need to clear waivers to be assigned. He came on in relief of Subban on May 3 in the opener of a three-game stint in Carolina, stopped all 19 shots he faced that night and then held the net for the rest of the series, earning his lone win of the year over the eventual Central Division champions in overtime on May 6.
"It's been challenging, but I've got to be thankful for the opportunity to even be in this situation to begin with," the ever-positive Delia said after his May 3 return. "Very thankful to be part of the organization and thankful to compete and work with some amazing individuals every day. Although it has been challenging, it's been super gratifying to be here."
Delia started the final game of the season as well, making a season-best 45 saves in the overtime defeat in his fourth appearance over the final five games.
"You've got to give a lot of credit to Jimmy Waite. He's done a great job getting them all ready, especially the second half of the year," Colliton said of the netminders after the season, noting Delia's long stretch without game action. "We didn't have much practice time at all, so not a lot of reps to have. It's one thing to go out with the taxi squad, but if it's only 3-4 guys, it's tough to get them the reps they need to be sharp."
As for the long-term implications of the trio's year, the future has yet to be decided -- all enter the 2021-22 season as pending free agents next summer. If anything, training camp will again be a proving ground for all three to stake a claim to the starter's job, and quite likely the near-term future of the Blackhawks' net.
"That's part of their progression and part of ours, as a team, trying to figure out who it is going to be," Colliton said of the continuation. "I think competition is healthy."
"We want everyone to look to be better, so I think we're going to challenge all three of them to step up their game," Bowman said. "I think when you look back at the season (though), you have to be content with the way the goalies performed."