LOS ANGELES — Nobody was more excited when the Blackhawks acquired Marc-Andre Fleury over the offseason than Kevin Lankinen. Even though he was hoping to have a chance to be the full-time starter, Lankinen was thrilled at the idea of learning from a future first-ballot Hall of Famer.
On Monday, the Blackhawks traded Fleury to Minnesota ahead of the deadline and it was a bittersweet moment for Lankinen. He was sad about losing somebody that became a mentor figure for him, but also hungry for the opportunity to be the go-to guy down the stretch.
"He was awesome, just as a teammate, as a mentor, being able to sit next to him all this time and learn from him," Lankinen said. "I've learned so many things. He's just a great dude all-around. He will be missed in the locker room, for sure. But on the other hand, I think it presents an opportunity for myself. I've been working extremely hard on my game and I want to make the most out of this opportunity."
The biggest thing for Lankinen is just getting into the rhythm of having consecutive starts. As a backup, sometimes you only play once every two weeks, and typically it's the second of a back to back when the legs in front of him are a little tired.
Lankinen admittedly had a tough time getting into a groove as the backup, although there were some challenging circumstances he faced that were beyond his control, such as missing time while in COVID-19 protocol and being sidelined for a month with a right-hand injury. He didn't want to make excuses, but he is looking forward to stringing together starts so he can remember what that consistency feels like.
"I think every time you just go there, whether it's the next day or two weeks in between, you've just got to go and do your best," Lankinen said. "But to be honest, it definitely helps to get some rhythm and I think even for the D and for the team, to see you out there more regularly and getting some habits, I think that will be a big part too."
While he didn't start Thursday in Los Angeles, interim head coach Derek King expects Lankinen to receive the majority of the work in the final month of the season. He kicked things off on a positive note in Anaheim, where he stopped 27 of 29 shots for a save percentage of .931 to pick up his fourth win of the campaign.
"A great situation for Lanks," King said. "He's had some ups and downs, injuries and what have you, and now he's back and now he knows he's the guy and he's going to play a majority of the games. I'll have to talk with [goaltending coach] Jimmy [Waite] about schedule-wise but I just kind of looked at it quickly and the schedule favors Lanks of playing a lot of hockey games. We don't want to tire him out either. We'll address it when the time comes."
In the big picture, it's also a huge opportunity for Lankinen because he's set to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. So while it's unclear if he will be back in Chicago, Lankinen is probably treating this as an audition for whomever.
"I see this as a big opportunity for myself," Lankinen said. "I kind of see where this team is going and what they're building here. Obviously I like it here and I'm going to make the most out of the opportunity, so we'll see what happens.
"I've been working extremely hard and I think this is my time to shine and I'm going to make the most out of it."