All signs pointed to the Minnesota Wild staying quiet at the 2021-22 NHL trade deadline. After all, general manager Bill Guerin said that he didn’t want to rock the boat with an unnecessary trade. However, issues in goal forced the Wild to pull off a pair of goaltending-related deals to shake up the crease.
The first trade saw the Wild acquire three-time Stanley Cup-winning goalie Marc-André Fleury from the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for a conditional 2022 second-round draft pick. With three goaltenders on the roster, Minnesota had no choice but to move on from Kakko Kahkonen, trading him to the San Jose Sharks for defenseman Jacob Middleton and a 2022 fifth-round selection.
While bringing in Fleury and moving Kahkonen impacts the Wild’s present goaltending situation, it also affects the future between the pipes when it concerns 2021 first-round pick Jesper Wallstedt. With Kahkonen no longer in front of him while Fleury and Cam Talbot are heading toward the end of their respective careers, Wallstedt’s path to the NHL has never been clearer.
Wallstedt Faces Less of a Log Jam With Kahkonen Gone
Before the Wild used a first-round pick on Wallstedt at last year’s draft, Kahkonen was seen as the organization’s goaltender of the future. He showed flashes of brilliance during his first two campaigns with the Wild, leading to fans wondering if he could be a legitimate starter one day, especially with him still being in his earlier 20s.
But then things changed when Wallstedt fell to the Wild at Pick No. 20 in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft. The Swedish netminder was projected to go much earlier than that and was seen as the class’ top goaltending prospect, so it was a no-brainer for Minnesota to draft him. Besides, a goaltender’s development can be unpredictable and having more than one promising prospect improves the chances of at least one of them panning out. Nevertheless, having both Kahkonen and Wallstedt posed an interesting question: which one would become the Wild’s starting goalie down the line?
The situation became much clearer as the 2021-22 NHL season went on. Kahkonen began the year looking like a threat to Talbot’s starting job in the crease, going 10-3-2 in his first 17 appearances with a 2.44 goals-against average (GAA) and .924 save percentage (SV%) without a shutout. Unfortunately, he couldn’t keep that momentum going as he went 2-5-1 in his next eight appearances in a Wild uniform, yielding an abysmal 3.77 GAA and .880 SV%.
With the Wild needing a goalie of Fleury’s caliber, there wasn’t a place for Kahkonen in the lineup anymore. He’s an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season anyway, so there was always a chance that Minnesota may not have consider bringing him back if his play didn’t pick up down the stretch. Whatever confidence the Wild had in his future ended up dissolving by the trade deadline, leaving Wallstedt as the heir apparent to the starting goalie job in the next few years.
At the end of the day, Wallstedt is a special talent and his upside was always higher than Kahkonen’s. Even if having two young goaltenders offers a better chance at one of them panning out, the latter’s lows made the Wild’s decision that much easier. Wallstedt will no longer have to deal with potentially entering a timeshare with Kahkonen once Fleury and Talbot are gone, making his path to the starting goalie job that much clearer.
Talbot, Fleury Aren’t Threats to Wallstedt’s Future
Even with Kahkonen gone, fans may still be wondering if Talbot or even Fleury’s presence will prevent Wallstedt from coming to North America as soon as he could. While that’s a valid concern, nothing about either goaltender’s current situation implies that they’ll be an issue to the Swedish phenom’s career.
On one hand, Fleury is slated to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2021-22 campaign. There’s always a chance that the Wild could re-sign him if they go on an extended playoff run, but he’s 37 years old and nearing the end of his NHL career. Even if he performs well and wants to stay, the organization is set to deal with a cap crunch when Zach Parise and Ryan Suter’s buyouts come into effect next season. Unless he’s willing to take a team-friendly discount, this year will likely be Fleury’s only in a Wild uniform.
When it comes to Talbot, he’ll become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2022-23 NHL season, which shouldn’t interfere with Wallstedt’s path either. He’ll be 36 years old by the time his contract has ended and might have another season or two left in him. It’d be a great idea for the Wild to bring him back for a season or two at that point because it’ll allow Wallstedt to have some extra support as he eases into his NHL role.
There’s also the possibility that the Wild may not have either Fleury or Talbot on their roster once the 2023-24 season rolls around. As mentioned before, the upcoming salary cap crunch will make it tough to spend the cash to keep the Wild as a contending team. Management may opt to go for some sort of rebuild/retool in a few years with perhaps Wallstedt and another goalie who isn’t on the roster yet. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting situation worth monitoring.
When Will Wallstedt Make His NHL Debut?
Although Wallstedt’s path to the NHL is much clearer after the Wild moved on from Kahkonen, it still doesn’t indicate when he’ll actually make the move to North America. Anyone familiar with hockey knows how unpredictable goalies can be with their development, with some ready for a starting job in their early 20s while others may not be ready closer to 30.
The good news about Wallstedt’s development is that he’s already looking better than he did during his draft year. He finished with a 12-10-0 record, 2.23 GAA, .907 SV% and two shutouts in 22 games with Lulea HF of the Swedish Hockey League last season. Despite having an identical record in the same number of games in 2021-22, Wallstedt has improved to a 1.98 GAA, .918 SV% and three shutouts. What’s even more impressive is that he’s accomplished those numbers in a backup role behind Joel Lassinantti.
It’s also important to point out that Wallstedt is still a teenager and won’t be turning 20 until November. As exciting as it would be to see him come over and man the Wild’s crease right away, Guerin may let him simmer over in Sweden for another season before bringing him over in 2023-24 at the earliest. As mentioned before, Talbot is signed until the end of next season, meaning the Wild aren’t exactly desperate for a starting goalie.
At the end of the day, Wallstedt is a special prospect who shouldn’t be rushed until Wild management is certain he’s ready to play at the NHL level. The idea of him being a Vezina Trophy candidate one season is exciting to think about, but it’s also been an extremely long time since the organization has had a goaltending prospect of this caliber to be excited for. It’s entirely possible that he could be deemed ready as soon as next year, but the truth is that he’ll be worth the wait whenever he does show up in St. Paul, Minnesota.
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!