Wallstedt eager to learn with Wild

Photo: Vitor Munhoz / Arena du Rocket Inc.

📝 by Patrick Williams

Who, me?

That was Jesper Wallstedt’s reaction when Iowa Wild head coach Tim Army told the rookie goaltender that he was going to the 2023 AHL All-Star Classic in Laval.

“I actually spoke with my dad [earlier],” Wallstedt recalled, “and he asked me, ‘Do you think you’re going to get to the All-Star Game?’

“No way,” Wallstedt replied. “There’s no chance I’m getting there.”

Think again.

Wallstedt had an invitation to the event. And for good measure, one night before going to Laval, he pulled out a point for the Wild with a 40-save performance in an overtime setback at Rockford.

The All-Star nod was the latest accolade for one of the top goaltending prospects in hockey. Wallstedt went to Minnesota with the 20th overall pick in the 2021 NHL Draft, and arrived in Des Moines with significant fanfare. He is viewed as a potential number-one goaltender someday at Xcel Energy Center.

And for good reason. He starred with Lulea in the top-flight Swedish Hockey League last season, leading that circuit with a 1.98 goals-against average. He was named the top goaltender at the 2022 IIHF World Junior Championship last summer, carrying Sweden to a bronze-medal finish.

The AHL is a challenge for any goaltender, let alone one making that leap at age 19 and doing so from Sweden, where the position differs considerably from the AHL’s offensively aggressive and physical nature.

In five of his first seven outings with Iowa, Wallstedt posted a save percentage of .880 or below. He was dinged for five goals by Grand Rapids, six by Milwaukee.

But there were ups as well. On Nov. 12, he made 37 saves at Chicago to pick up his first AHL victory, punctuated by an empty-net goal to seal a 5-2 win.

Development is a process — coaches lean on that cliche for good reason — and both Wallstedt and the Iowa staff are fully invested in the effort.

Army has been in the coaching game since 1987. Goaltending coach Richard Bachman, who is in his third season with Iowa, put in 264 AHL games along with another 48 in the NHL during his days in net before retiring at the end of the 2019-20 campaign.

They have a student willing to listen and learn.

“I’m quite open-minded as a goalie,” Wallstedt said. “I would like to think that I’m a pretty good listener to what they have to say.”

Army loves to talk hockey, and he and Wallstedt have built an early rapport. And Bachman offers time for goalie-to-goalie chats.

“For me, it’s very different from back home,” Wallstedt said of the AHL. “So having [Army] come with small tips and tricks here and there is very useful for me.

“[Bachman] has been great on and off the ice. He’s a very kind human being and he really cares about the about the person behind the mask on the ice. He has a lot of knowledge about technical things. He’s also seeing a lot of small details and things that may have to be adjusted or just spoken about, and we will have a good discussion there.”

But you don’t know what you don’t know, and bridging that communication gap takes time.

“You’re always doing things that are normal to yourself and natural,” Wallstedt explained, “but here maybe some of it isn’t what they want you to do, or they want you to do something another way.

“And for me that’s impossible to know, because I’m used to something completely different. So they can come to me and say, ‘Okay, Jesper, maybe you have to think a little bit about this.’ Or, ‘Here, we don’t do that. We do it this way instead.’

“I think that’s been very good for me and definitely helped me adjust and…stay in the zone and be ready.”

Practice emerged as one area that was quickly identified as needing improvement for the young prodigy. Wallstedt is self-aware enough to have recognized that his habits needed work.

“You know, I think always even since I was very, very young, it’s always been about playing for me,” Wallstedt said. “I love to compete. I love to play. But I haven’t always been one of the hardest-working guys off the ice. Practicing hasn’t been the most important thing to me. I’ve always just wanted to go out and play hockey. I want to play games, and I want to win.

“I’m still 20 years old. I’m a young kid, so there’s a lot of things I still have to learn.”

Practice with purpose. Build habits that cross over into games seamlessly. With a resume that includes 35 years of NHL, AHL and college experience, Army places a premium on having top-tier practice habits.

“There’s a ton of expectations and pressures,” Army said of the burden on Wallstedt. “He’s skilled, and he tracks pucks well. He’s big, and he’s strong. He can fight through traffic. He can stand tall in scrambles. He has a good feel for the game. He understands the game. He’s a very smart player. He processes the game well.

“We’ve encouraged him [about] the importance of practice and details and how to practice properly, and the optics with your teammates, how it helps your own game. Those details transfer to game environments, and when you’ve got good details, and the game gets chaotic and the other team’s pushing, those details are what guide you. Because you’ve got details, it comes naturally to you.”

Army acknowledged that Wallstedt has been a receptive student.

“He said to me on a couple of occasions, ‘I didn’t know that. I’m glad you told me.’ He’s learning. He didn’t know; he’s not supposed to know. That’s what we’re here for — to guide him through it.”

Practice to the whistle. Don’t let up. Approach it with the intensity of a game. And do all of it consistently. Wallstedt is continuing to learn, and it is paying off. Even with the slow start, Wallstedt is 13-8-4 on the season with a 2.74 GAA and a .909 save percentage, giving Iowa one of the AHL’s top tandems alongside Zane McIntyre.

“I kind of compare it to learning another language,” Army continued. “When you learn another language, you think in your native language. It’s not natural.

“When you really learn the language, you just speak without even learning it. You can’t all of a sudden start thinking about [what to do] in a game, because the game’s going to pass you by.”

Wallstedt has spawned enough confidence that Army has been able to ease McIntyre’s workload; last season, as Iowa chased a Calder Cup Playoff berth, Army turned to McIntyre 14 times in a 27-day stretch in April. Wallstedt’s emergence has given the organization a much more workable set-up on its goaltending depth chart: McIntyre is in Iowa to serve as a mentor and reliable netminder who can also head to Minnesota if and when he is needed, without the AHL affiliate having to work him so heavily.

Wallstedt, meanwhile, is in Iowa to develop.

“He’s got a tremendous work ethic,” Army said of McIntyre, “so it’s good for a young guy like Jesper to see a veteran goalie like Mac, and see how hard he works and what he does.”

Remember that Wallstedt came to a new league in a new city in a new country before he had even turned 20. Find a place to live. Get around town. Learn the million and one details that come with a major life change. Wallstedt cited grocery shopping and insurance as early challenges.

But the organization and teammates pitched in. He found a place, got a car, and has settled in with daily life in Des Moines.

“I think it’s going good now,” Wallstedt said. “It was definitely tough at the beginning and very stressful getting used to everything. I feel like I’ve settled down a little bit. I’m very thankful for where I am right now.”

With his off-ice and practice routines squared away, the on-ice results are following.

“I feel like my game is going in the right direction,” Wallstedt said. “I feel like I have started to turn the season around and started to play better and get more comfortable.”