Heading into the bronze-medal game of last week's World Junior Championship in Edmonton, my all-star ballot was down to two netminders: Czechia's Tomas Suchanek and Sweden's Jesper Wallstedt. Suchanek had withstood barrages for his team and came up big in the quarterfinal win over the United States. If the Czechs were going to win bronze, it was likely going to be a low-scoring affair with Suchanek coming up big.
In Wallstedt, Sweden had a top NHL prospect who delivered consistently throughout the tournament, even if he (wrongly) blamed himself for a round-robin loss to those same Americans.
When the final buzzer sounded, Wallstedt and Sweden had taken the bronze with a tidy 3-1 victory over Suchanek and the Czechs. My all-star vote went to Wallstedt and it seemed most others agreed: Not only did he make the media all-star team, but he was also named Best Goalkeeper by the IIHF Directorate. And it sounds like that loss to the Americans was a turning point.
"I think that just shows my mental game," Wallstedt said. "I'm quite hard on myself, I have high expectations for myself, but that's how I want it to be. If I'm not good enough, I'm going to tell myself that and tell everyone else that. But it just shows my ability to bounce back and get those wins."
Drafted 20th overall by the Minnesota Wild in 2021, Wallstedt has been on the radar for a number of years and the hype has been valid. Last season, he posted the best goals-against average in the SHL with a 1.98 mark for Lulea. He was even better at the world juniors in Edmonton, with a 1.62 GAA and .940 save percentage. Losing to the Finns in the semifinal was crushing, but the Swedes picked themselves up.
"We got home (to the hotel), thought about the game and then left it behind us," Wallstedt said. "We really didn't want to leave this place without a medal. So we had total confidence and wanted that medal a bit more than the Czechs did. For me, it was my last junior game so I wanted to finish with a medal. I wanted gold, but a bronze is quite good."
For a Swedish team that had trouble scoring in the tourney - defenseman Emil Andrae was actually their points leader - getting excellent goaltending was key.
"He was the best goalie in the tournament," said Swedish coach Tomas Monten. "He has good experience and he's a tremendous person and leader. If you could put a 'C' on a goalie, he would have it for sure. And he's calm. The feeling on the bench, even if he fumbled the puck sometimes, was that Jesper had this."
Watching Wallstedt, you do see that calm - it often feels as though he has convinced the other team they're not going to score on him thanks to his positioning. That is very much by design.
"I want to make it look as easy as possible, that's my game plan," he said. "I want to make as small moves as possible and when I need to and get out of my comfort zone, I can make those game-winning saves."
Now after years developing in Sweden, Wallstedt is coming to North America for the next stage of his career. Marc-Andre Fleury is the starter in Minnesota and Filip Gustavsson is a perfect back-up candidate, which works because Wallstedt should be getting as many reps as possible at this point. He has a perfect opportunity to do so with AHL Iowa and the organization also has an experienced veteran in Zane McIntyre on a two-way contract who can help out both on and off the ice.
While a summer world juniors wasn't ideal for most involved, it actually was a benefit for Wallstedt.
"It was perfect, the timing of this tournament," he said. "Getting a chance to play on smaller ice and adjust a little bit will surely give me an advantage when I head to camp in a couple weeks. It was a perfect fit for me."
And in a couple years, Wallstedt will be a perfect fit in an NHL crease for Minnesota.