It's too bad that the only goalies on earth hotter than Jesper Wallstedt since John Hynes took over the Minnesota Wild are Filip Gustavsson and Marc-Andre Fleury. It's not often that a young goalie leads the AHL in save percentage and finds themselves with no room at the inn, but that's where Wallstedt is at right now.
Albeit, the Wild (and even the State of Hockey) weren't exactly clamoring for the 21-year-old goalie to get to the NHL, even when both their goaltenders were sinking the season. Everyone seemed to be on the program of letting Wallstedt earn his stripes in the AHL while Gustavsson tried to get his game together, and Fleury continued his pursuit of second-place in all-time goalie wins.
On Tuesday night, Wallstedt stopped 30 of 31 shots in a 6-1 Iowa Wild victory over the Rockford Ice Hogs. It was Wallstedt's third straight win, bringing the 2021 first-round pick to 9-4-0 on the season. Wallstedt stymied 113 of 117 shots in those three games, bringing his save percentage up to a league-leading .939.
Goalies often go through hot and cold stretches, and Wallstedt was no exception last season. We can see it in his month-by-month splits:
It all added up to a .908 save percentage, which is respectable for a 20-year-old AHL rookie making his debut on North American ice rinks that are different than the dimensions he's used to in Sweden. But while Wallstedt could get on strong runs, Wild fans didn't see him putting together long stretches of consistency. He trended neither up nor down during the season.
This year, the consistency is perhaps even more impressive than the raw save percentage. Over his last nine games, Wallstedt hasn't dipped below a .900 save percentage in even one contest. He's allowed two or fewer goals in 10 of his 13 starts. Not only is the talent on display, but the Iowa Wild know exactly what they'll get out of their goalie on a near-nightly basis.
Even better news: When AHL goalies are as good and as young as Wallstedt is, that's as powerful a statement as can be that they will hack it in the NHL. As it stands, Wallstedt is No. 3 all-time in save percentage (minimum 10 games) for a 21-year-old AHL goalie.
Just look at who else is on the list he's joining:
1. Jack Campbell: 942
2. Marc-Andre Fleury: .939
3. Jesper Wallstedt: .939
4. Robin Lehner: .938
5. Jonathan Bernier: .936
6. Andrei Vasilevskiy: .935
7. John Gibson: .935
8. Juuse Saros: .934
9. Jaroslav Halak: .932
10. Dustin Wolf: .932
Wolf is the only player for whom we don't more-or-less know how their career played out. Fleury and Vasilevskiy have won Vezina Trophies, with Lehner and Saros finishing as finalists. Halak has two Jennings Trophies (awarded to the team allowing the fewest of goals), including one as the 1A starter in 2011-12. Gibson had a case as the best goalie in the world for about a half-decade.
In short, it is a decorated bunch. Only Campbell and Bernier can really be said to have gone on to be relative disappointments, spending most of their careers as 1B or backup-level netminders. But if you're looking at the track record as a whole, 75% of these names having long, productive NHL careers can only be encouraging.
This is usually the part where we say, "Oh, but this is a small sample size." That's true, in a sense; 13 games don't make a season. Goalies can get hot for 13 games, no problem. What's weird about this list, though, is that putting up these kinds of numbers in small sample sizes hasn't stopped some of these goalies from becoming the cream of the NHL's crop.
Fleury's minor-league performance came in 2005-06, and he played just 12 games for the Wilkes-Scranton Barre Penguins, then played in 50 games with Pittsburgh. Vasilevskiy logged just 12 games for the Syracuse Crunch at age 21, with Gibson getting 11 games for the Norfolk Admirals, and Saros only 15 games with the Milwaukee Admirals at Wallstedt's age.
Small sample sizes? Perhaps. Flukes? Definitely not, given how their careers went.
Wallstedt is doing this all behind a defense that's also fairly inexperienced. Dakota Mermis and Andy Welinski give Iowa some veteran experience on the blueline, but those are the exceptions, particularly when Mermis is with Minnesota (as he was last night). 24-year-old Simon Johansson is the "old guy" of the group. Daemon Hunt and Ryan O'Rourke are 21. Carson Lambos, Kyle Masters, and David Spacek are all 20. There is talent on that blueline, but they're all first-and-second year AHLers. They're very raw at the pro level and serve as the line of defense in front of Wallstedt.
As absurd as it sounds, maybe it makes perfect sense. Wallstedt's youth and relative inexperience aren't stopping him from putting up all-time numbers. So why should the youth and relative inexperience of his teammates stop him? We might still have way to go before we see Wallstedt in St. Paul, but the State of Hockey should still keep an eye on him in Des Moines. The opportunity to witness a 21-year-old dominating the AHL is too rare and special to ignore.
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