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  • Jesper Wallstedt Is Building A Foundation In Iowa

    Aaron Heckmann

    Editor's Note: This is part three of a four-part series checking in with four Minnesota Wild prospects who spoke to 10KRinks in exclusive one-on-one interviews during the Iowa Wild's series against the Texas Stars last weekend. Here is Part 1 profiling Marco Rossi and Part 2 profiling Daemon Hunt.


    DES MOINES, Iowa — Whether Jesper Wallstedt likes it or not — or even acknowledges it — there are high expectations for his future. In 2021, the Minnesota Wild drafted him 20th overall, making him the first Swedish goaltender in NHL history to go in the first round. He's considered to be the best goalie prospect in the world by various scouts and outlets, such as The Athletic's Scott Wheeler. If that wasn't enough, Minnesota's high-profile prospect is projected to be their goalie of the future.


    The hype is massive, and for good reason. Wallstedt, 20, posted a 2.53 goals-against-average and .923 save percentage with the Lulea HF J20 team in 2019-20. Then he followed that up with two more impressive seasons after moving up to Lulea's Swedish Hockey League (SHL) team.


    Playing in one of the best leagues in Europe, he had a .908 SV% in 2020-21 and 1.98 GAA and .918 SV% last season. He received even more attention with his strong performance in the World Juniors last year, finishing the five games with a 1.62 GAA and .940 SV%.


    It only took Wallstedt four games in the American Hockey League (AHL) to make waves in North America. In his fourth game for the Iowa Wild, he stopped 37 of 39 shots to get his first win. More impressively, though, Wallstedt felt comfortable enough to shoot the puck. He scored the first goalie goal in Iowa Wild history, resulting in him being featured across many highlight reels.


    "I just did a quick analysis in my head. We were up two goals; we were on the PK," Wallstedt said. "There weren’t really a lot of things that could go bad, so I just went for it. Saw pretty early that it was going in, so that was nice."



    It's the second time he's ever scored a goal. Recalling both situations, Wallstedt said they were very similar. "This one definitely had a little bit more steam on it," Wallstedt said. "I remember the first one slowly glided in. I felt like this one was pretty hard and got into the back of the net pretty comfortably.”


    Wallstedt didn't have many eye-popping saves in his start on Dec. 17 against the Texas Stars. But that wasn't because he wasn't tested, it was because of his positioning and ability to track pucks. He remains square to the shooter and is almost always in the right spot. As a result, he's had superb rebound control. His demeanor in the crease is calm, too, which makes everything look easy for him, despite the expectations and pressure.


    “There’s been a lot of things," Wallstedt said when asked what adjustments he's had to make. "The game is faster, everything comes back to the net more quickly. There are more cross-ice passes, so you really have to be faster on your feet."


    That's quite a bit of change thrown at such a young goalie, but Wallstedt doesn't feel overwhelmed. "I feel like I’m improving every day," Wallstedt says of the growth in his game. "I'm getting faster, getting into position more quickly. I feel like I’m giving myself more and more time to make saves."


    Despite the high expectations and jumping from the SHL to the AHL, he doesn't play as if there's pressure. Nor is he a goalie who looks like he's drowning while adapting to the AHL game — the second-highest league in North America.


    The numbers might hint at some growing pains from the transition, though. Through his first 15 starts in Iowa this season, Wallstedt posted a 3.25 GAA and .894 save percentage. 


    "Yeah, [it's] not so much that," Tim Army told 10KRinks about if Wallstedt is exhibiting some growing pains. "I think just expanding his game, so he’s efficient in the net, [and] he’s not getting exposed.”


    That could read like sugarcoating, but when you hear Army say it, you know he believes it. Matt Boldy and Calen Addison have graduated to the NHL, and they continue to be successful at the NHL level. However, the Iowa Wild aren't just a different team without them, but a club that simply has a lot of holes — especially defensively.


    You can see it in goalie Zane McIntyre's numbers. Last season, he had a .920 save percentage behind a strong Iowa club. This season, he's at .890 through 14 games. It certainly seems the team's growing pains on defense are playing a role in Wallstedt's low numbers.


    However, there's obviously an adjustment to the AHL with more high-level talent present. Army singled out the Stars' Riley Barber as an example of someone who has the ability to expose goalies in the AHL with some NHL characteristics.


    “He’s so talented that he’s been able to get away with some inefficiencies before he got here," Army said of Wallstedt. “He’s got a great base. We’re just working on the efficiency of his position to take advantage of the skill set that he has and [that's] gonna make him a better goalie. So that’s the idea behind it. He’s gonna be the same type of goalie, but he’s gonna make some adjustments because if he doesn’t, the shooters are too good and they’re gonna expose you.”


    Army said Wallstedt's performance in the net has given them an opportunity to win every game he's been in, with the exception of his start against the Rockford IceHogs on Dec. 13, where he gave up five goals on 19 shots. Army added that he was especially good in their western swing in late November, when the Wild recalled McIntyre, leaving Wallstedt as the main starter.


    In fact, Wallstedt's numbers have significantly improved over the last month. Take the one Rockford game out, and he has a .916 save percentage since Nov. 26. Wallstedt admitted it takes time to adjust, especially with him moving countries, but the improved stats back up his feeling that he's improved.


    So what's next for him? What is he focused on working at to get to the NHL? “Just getting faster, I would say. Moving my feet, making my cross-ice movements, and finding good depth on every push," Wallstedt answered. "Trying to be quick off every shot, so I can get to the rebounds, get to the posts, and be ready for the second opportunity on every shot."


    Most importantly though, Wallstedt wants to take this transition and development process one step at a time.


    "I just want to improve every day, just want to get better and better," Wallstedt said. "I don’t wanna rush myself or rush anything. I want to build a good foundation and build something that is long-term. I feel like I'm doing it right here. The AHL is a tough league. It’s a grind, so just every practice, every game, I want to be 100 percent focused on doing everything. It feels like it’s definitely helping my improvement, so I try to put in some extra work."


    Army said they've worked with him on specific details of his game, such as communication, handling the puck, not getting too deep in the net when there's traffic in front to avoid getting beat by a deflection and so it's easier to recover a rebound. He also tends to "crouch over his shoulder," which leaves the top portion of the net exposed.


    “Those are some of the things where we’re trying to elevate his game to this level," Army said. "He’s catching on. It's just got to become a habit to him and when it becomes second nature… that’s where they really start to track.”


    After Wallstedt's conditioning level was "OK" when he entered training camp, Army said he's improved in that aspect because of the extra practice and work he's put in, which is good to establish at his age. In addition to better conditioning, Army also mentioned his athleticism, how composed he is in terms of his body language, and his structure in the net as strengths.


    “He recognizes he’s got to be better because the game is better, the level is better. It’s the second-best league in the world for a reason," Army said. "If you’re gonna go to the best league in the world, you got to establish the details to your structure as a goalie, which he is doing, and it’s reflective of his game. His conditioning base is getting better."


    And once he starts talking about Wallstedt's intangibles, Army can't stop praising him. "The other thing that’s really impressive about Jesper is he’s a very smart player," Army said. "He’s a very, very intuitive, intelligent goalie and for a young age, it’s very impressive. He’s got a really good base on the game and reading the game and processing the game, which is really going to help him going forward.”


    Army said he's seen improvement in the details of Wallstedt's game, and he's "learning what it's like to be a pro."


    Speaking of that, as soon as Wallstedt opened the door to leave the arena after the game on Dec. 17, there was a fan waiting outside to get a picture autographed. With his post-game food in hand — no, not his typical pre-game meal from Noodles & Company — he made time for the fan even though he had just mentioned his readiness to go home and rest moments earlier.


    ”He’s obviously a very bright prospect," Army said. "He’s played extremely well, and he’s got a great foundation. And the areas he needs to get better in…he’s improving. He’s a better goalie today than he was when he first came.”


    All Data Via EliteProspects and AHL.com

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