Hellberg back to chase NHL dream again

Photo: Nicolas Carrillo

📝 by Patrick Williams

If nothing else, Magnus Hellberg has been collecting plenty of goaltending gear this fall. Some tales to tell after hockey is done, too.

After all, Hellberg has been claimed off waivers more times (three) than he has played a game (two) this season.

So a conditioning assignment with the Grand Rapids Griffins is a much-needed — and welcome — step toward the goaltender’s National Hockey League ambitions.

It was that NHL desire that prompted Hellberg to return to North America after five seasons playing in China and Russia, a decision that he had made before last season had even started. Even for a 31-year-old player, the AHL is on the path back to the big leagues.

“I want to compete with the best,” Hellberg said. “I think I’ve competed against a lot of guys [who] play in the NHL full-time, and that’s where I want to be. My goal here is to showcase myself and battle for a spot in the NHL.”

It was a winding journey that led Hellberg to the Grand Rapids crease on Friday night. After his KHL season with Sochi HC ended, Hellberg signed with the Detroit Red Wings in April to end 2021-22, then joined Seattle as a free agent in July. He was plucked off the NHL waiver wire by the Ottawa Senators during training camp, reclaimed by the Kraken on Nov. 10, and snatched up by Detroit on Nov. 23.

Before he headed off to Grand Rapids last week, the 6-foot-6, 220-pound Hellberg’s only other game this season had been an Oct. 24 start for Ottawa, where he stopped 29 of 31 shots in a 4-2 win over Dallas.

Three waiver claims. Two months. One game.

“A little curveball,” Hellberg called the season so far. “I think you just have to embrace it. It’s been a whirlwind for both me and my family.

“But you know what? I can just focus on what I can control, and that’s building and working on my game. It doesn’t matter where I am. The puck looks the same.”

Decked out in a Detroit-themed mask and Ottawa-colored pads, Hellberg was sharp on Friday in stopping 34 of 37 shots in a 4-1 loss to the Texas Stars. After Riley Tufte’s goal 3:50 into the game, Hellberg turned away 31 consecutive shots before Riley Barber, one of the AHL’s most dangerous shooters, beat him again with the go-ahead goal in the third period.

“I was really excited to get in there,” Hellberg said afterwards. “This is why you play hockey, to compete and try to win games.”

Griffins head coach Ben Simon came away happy as well.

“It’s tough,” Simon said of Hellberg’s situation, “but I think that he’s mentally strong and he was excited to come in. I thought he played very well.”

Hellberg made his Red Wings debut in their season finale last April, a 5-3 win at New Jersey. But the first afternoon that the NHL free-agent market was open in July, Seattle snagged him on a one-year deal needing organizational depth with their new AHL affiliate beginning play in Coachella Valley. A potential tandem of Hellberg and Joey Daccord could have rivaled any in the AHL while also providing the Kraken with two reliable recall options. Hellberg’s new Kraken-inspired pads even caused a sensation on social media during summer’s quieter days as he prepared for a fresh opportunity.

At least that had been the idea back in July.

So much for that.

Photo: Nicolas Carrillo

An injury to Ottawa’s Cam Talbot during training camp quickly shook up that plan. The Senators claimed Hellberg, who now needed another set of goaltending gear. Aside from that start against Dallas, Hellberg backed up Anton Forsberg until Talbot returned, and then it was back to the waiver wire.

This time, Seattle jumped; Kraken netminder Philipp Grubauer had been on injured reserve since Oct. 25 and Daccord, who had played just once since being recalled to back up Martin Jones, needed to get back to his workload in Coachella Valley.

But Grubauer came off injured reserve Nov. 18, and Hellberg found himself back on waivers. Detroit struck this time, looking for depth to go with the duo of Ville Husso and Alex Nedeljkovic. Another steady hand like Hellberg is good insurance for the organization should injuries hit.

And Detroit knows what they have in Hellberg after last spring’s audition. Simon knew Hellberg, too; as a young Nashville Predators prospect, Hellberg had a brief stint with Simon’s Cincinnati Cyclones in the ECHL in 2013-14.

The Swedish-born Hellberg certainly could have settled in comfortably with any of a number of European clubs for the rest of his career, given his extensive resume. He was a second-round pick by the Predators in the 2011 NHL Draft and spent five seasons in North America, mainly in the AHL with Milwaukee and Hartford, and was an AHL All-Star in 2015. Last season afforded him a chance to represent Sweden at both the 2022 Olympics and the IIHF World Championship.

A goaltending resume like that can rake in big money in Europe.

But Hellberg had not yet shaken that urge to return to North America and take another shot at the NHL, which is why even jumping from one organization to the next every few weeks is worth it. Perhaps this time in Grand Rapids can set him up for something more somewhere. Red Wings general manager Steve Yzerman, who played a significant role in constructing the Tampa Bay Lightning and setting them up to win a pair of Stanley Cup championships, is using a similar blueprint in Grand Rapids, where Detroit has been accumulating a deep base of strong prospects.

But having lost six of their last eight games, the Griffins need a boost, and perhaps Hellberg can provide it going into another challenging week that includes a trip to New England to face Springfield and Hartford this weekend.

“Get back to my game as I know I can play, and then we’ll see,” Hellberg said. “I’ll take it day-by-day, one game at a time, and then we’ll see what the management in Detroit says.

“I think even though I’m 31 now, I want to get better every day. I’m feeling really good lately. I think I’m playing my best hockey, so I’m really excited to be back in North America.”