Minnesota Wild fans who have been mourning the franchise’s elimination from the 2021-22 NHL Playoffs received some great news on Monday when the club announced that they had signed goaltending prospect Jesper Wallstedt to his three-year, entry-level contract. The 19-year-old was the 20th overall selection in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft and is expected to man the crease in Minnesota for years to come.
Wallstedt’s signing certainly sheds some light on the Wild’s immediate goaltending situation in the 2022-23 season and beyond. The club’s clearly high on him, or else they wouldn’t have signed him to his entry-level deal as soon as they did. There’s been a lot of talk about whether or not Cam Talbot and Marc-André Fleury will both be back next season, and Wallstedt’s presence will have its effect on how that situation unfolds.
Wallstedt Ready for North America After Strong Swedish Seasons
The Wild were absolutely thrilled when Wallstedt was available at the No. 20 selection in the draft last year. After all, several scouts and experts had him listed as a potential top-10 pick and the best goaltending prospect in the class. Not only that, but he was also coming off a Swedish Hockey League (SHL) season that saw him go 12-10-0 in 22 appearances with Lulea HF, posting a .907 save percentage (SV%) and 2.23 goals-against average (GAA) with two shutouts as an 18-year-old. That type of goaltending prospect simply doesn’t grow on trees.
Many wondered how Wallstedt could improve on his impressive draft year, but he managed to do it during the 2021-22 SHL season. Although he saw nine fewer appearances than his counterpart Joel Lassinantti, Wallstedt managed to improve on his SV% (.917), GAA (1.98), and shutout total (three) compared to the previous year despite finishing with an identical record. In fact, his goals-against average and save percentage ranked first and fourth-best, respectively, across the SHL.
Few teenage goaltenders have the success that Wallstedt did against grown men in the SHL, leaving little else for him to prove in his home country. On top of his accomplishments in the league, he’s also won one gold, one silver and two bronze medals representing Sweden at various international events. Playing in more of them won’t do his development any good, which is why the time to move over to North America is now.
Wild general manager Bill Guerin has options for what he can do with Wallstedt. Sending him down to the American Hockey League (AHL) to begin the 2022-23 season seems like an easy choice since the current crop of goalies in Iowa didn’t leave much to be excited about this year. However, there’s also the possibility that Guerin believes Wallstedt is NHL-ready and could push Talbot or Fleury right out of the organization.
Wallstedt Signing Could Signal End of Talbot or Fleury in Minnesota
One of the biggest questions for the Wild this offseason surrounds their goaltending situation. Talbot is still under contract for one more year at $3,666,667, but he’s struggled with consistency during his tenure with the team and had a forgettable showing in his lone appearance in the 2021-22 playoffs.
Meanwhile, Fleury has told reporters during Monday’s final media availability of the season that he’s “definitely” open to the possibility of returning to the Wild for the 2022-23 season. It’s unclear if he’s only open to one more season or more, given that he’s 38 years old, but it could be tough to squeeze him in given that he had a $7 million cap hit last year while Guerin and co. only have just north of $7.3 million to spend this offseason, according to Cap Friendly.
Regardless of who gets brought back, having Wallstedt signed gives the Wild more flexibility. Pairing him alongside Talbot could save the team a lot of money that could be used elsewhere to flesh out the roster. At the same time, Wallstedt’s cheap rookie contract also affords Guerin the option of trading Talbot and using the freed-up cash to try and re-sign Fleury if he’s unwilling to take a team-friendly discount. Either way, the Wild have options, and that’s never a bad thing when trying to build a contender.
What Should the Wild Do With Wallstedt in 2022-23?
Wallstedt has all of the potential in the world to be a Vezina Trophy candidate one day, but it’s important to remember that goaltenders’ development can be tricky. Some goalies flame out before their NHL careers can even begin, while others don’t hit their stride until they turn 30. The idea of Wallstedt manning the Wild’s crease sure is exciting, but he shouldn’t be rushed into the situation until the organization is certain that he can handle it.
Starting Wallstedt in the AHL next season seems likely the smartest and safest call. The stakes are a lot lower in Iowa, and he could have a chance to truly build some momentum before making the full-time jump to the NHL. Even if one of Fleury or Talbot leaves this offseason, Guerin can sign a veteran backup on a cheap one-year contract and eventually recall the Swedish goaltending prodigy if he believes it’s time. Of course, if both Talbot and Fleury return, it’s a no-brainer for Wallstedt to start in the minors.
The Wild’s goaltending situation is a head-scratcher at the moment, but make no mistake: this is a “problem” that many organizations wished they had. As long as Guerin makes his time and doesn’t rush into any decisions without analyzing all outcomes, the goaltending future of Minnesota should be in good hands with Wallstedt.
As a lifelong hockey fan and recent Master of Journalism graduate, it’s always been my dream to write about the sport. That’s why you can find me here on THW covering the Minnesota Wild! You may also see my work on FanDuel, the Ottawa Citizen, and various sports betting sites. Follow me on Twitter @devplat!