The San Jose Sharks have never picked at seventh overall. They have only picked earlier than seventh in the NHL Entry Draft seven times, picking second three times (Pat Falloon, Andrei Zyuzin, Patrick Marleau), picking third twice (Mike Rathje, Brad Stuart) and sixth twice (Victor Kozlov, Milan Michalek). Their 2021 pick at seventh overall will be their earliest selection since they took Michalek in 2003.
While the 2021 class is not considered to be as strong as the 2020 class, there is one position where the 2021 class has an exceptional talent, and that is in goal. The Sharks have struggled with a long-term solution in net since Evgeni Nabokov left after the 2009-10 season. Goaltending is arguably the Sharks’ biggest weakness and I’m here to argue they can’t pass up one of the best goaltending prospects at seventh overall.
Previous First-Round Goalies
Taking goalies in the first round can be precarious. In the past 15 years, it seems just as likely that you could get a starter in the mid-to-late rounds. Igor Shestyorkin at 118th overall in 2014 is looking like quite the steal, but Brent Krahn in 2000 and Chet Pickard in 2008 are just two examples of goalies busts in the first round.
Of course, you can look at Marc-Andre Fleury and Carey Price as two that had long and decorated careers. Both were even relevant in the 2021 NHL playoffs after being drafted in 2003 and 2005 respectively. Fleury and Price are the top two active goalies in games played amongst all goalies who were taken in the first round, and are third and seventh all-time.
Why Wallstedt Is Different
Jesper Wallstedt is different in one very specific way – he has played professional hockey at the highest level in his draft season. No, the SHL is not the NHL, but it is one of the best leagues in the world. According to recent NHL equivalency model data, it is the fourth-best league in the world. Draft-eligible goalies just don’t play professional hockey in any considerable amount throughout history.
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North American goalies, for example, don’t really have much of an opportunity to play professionally in their draft year because there are rules limiting that option. Goalies have to play either in the CHL, NCAA, or USHL (which includes the United States National Team Development Program). Goalies from Europe don’t have this limitation, so you will sometimes see them getting a handful of professional games here and there.
2020 first-round pick Yaroslav Askarov played one game in the KHL in his draft year, 2015 first-round pick Ilya Samsonov also played one, while 2012 first-round pick Andre Vasilevskiy played zero. Wallstedt played 22 meaningful games for his SHL team Lulea HF, while posting a .908 save percentage and 2.23 goals-against average. Those numbers cannot be understated for a draft-eligible goalie – it is a feat almost never done.
Too Good to Pass Up
Last year, Askarov was the talk of the draft for goalies and if his draft plus one season is any indication, he is going to be a starting goalie in the NHL almost assuredly. While it is tough to compare the prospect of the two becoming NHL starters since they play in different leagues, it is worth noting that according to Hockey Prospecting, Wallstedt has a higher equivalency for his draft season. Askarov has a slightly higher NHL likelihood in the Hockey Prospecting model simply because he is a smidge taller and younger. The same is true for fellow Russian and Vezina Trophy winner Vasilevskiy.
Using Hockey Prospecting, I compared Wallstedt’s equivalency to every goalie that has been drafted in the first round in the past 20 years and his is unequivocally the highest. This does not mean he will be the best goalie of them all, but it does mean he is a pretty sure thing to become a good NHLer. He may not rack up Vezina Trophies as fast as Vasilevskiy, but there is little chance he is the next Riku Helenius. Goalies who are this good, playing against men in professional leagues this young, just don’t bust.
It’s a bit surprising that the goalie with the next highest equivalency in his draft season is Kari Lehtonen. At least by career numbers, Lehtonen was not elite, but he was a good goalie. He managed 649 NHL games and that ranks him ninth on the list of goalies taken in the first round. Lehtonen, in his draft season, played 23 games for Jokerit of the SM-Liiga (now part of the KHL). His .941 save percentage and 1.79 goals-against average were stellar. He is really the only comparison to Wallstedt, but that was nearly 20 years ago.
What to Do?
With the absence of a generational talent at the top of the first round this year, it is unlikely the Sharks really miss out on an elite offensive producer. In the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, they took all forwards, which should help their chances of getting at least one to two NHL players at that position. Perhaps the Sharks should grow a backbone as Tony Ferrari, managing editor and head scout at Dobber Prospects suggests, if they are hesitant to select Wallstedt at seventh overall.
Aside from Ferrari advocating taking Wallstedt as early as third overall and stating he is likely the only franchise-altering talent in the class, director of film scouting for Elite Prospects Cam Robinson agrees Wallstedt has the highest star potential in the 2021 draft class. If you can get the best player in the draft at No. 7, you do it. Lock up the goaltending position for years to come and laugh about it all the way back to the NHL playoffs.
Victor Nuño is a physician in private practice in Santa Cruz and an associate professor of osteopathic manipulative medicine at Touro University in California. He is an avid hockey fan ever since the San Jose Sharks joined the NHL in 1991. He plays, watches, and consumes everything related to hockey, but especially the Sharks and AHL affiliate Barracuda. In addition, he is a father to two beautiful young girls and husband to a wonderful wife. Follow me @VictorNuno12