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NHL Teams Will Regret Passing on Jesper Wallstedt

Jesper Wallstedt was projected by many to go in the top 10 of the 2021 NHL draft. Instead, Minnesota scooped him up 20th, and they're going to come out looking like kings.
Jesper Wallstedt

Some scouts called him the best player in the draft. Not the best goalie, but the best player.

So it's safe to say many were baffled when he fell to the Minnesota Wild at No. 20, five behind Detroit's Sebastian Cossa. 

Wallstedt was Sweden's starting goalie at the World Junior Championship, and perhaps the best in the tournament, period. His 48-save shutout against Slovakia was a standout performance -- and maybe the most noteworthy outside of Connor Bedard's four-goal game for Canada before the tournament was cancelled on Wednesday.

Wallstedt's journey to that point was interesting, to say the least.

Wallstedt didn't play goalie full-time until the age of 12, splitting time between the crease and as a defenseman. Two years later, he became the youngest player to play in the Swedish U-20 league at 14, breaking Victor Hedman's record. He then broke an even more unthinkable record, becoming the youngest player to score a goal in the top Swedish junior league, still at the age of 14.

It's kind of insane when you think about it, but it was just the start of Wallstedt's rise up the ranks. He later became the youngest goalie to play in the top Swedish men's league when he got into a contest back in 2019-20 at 17 years old. Wallstedt ultimately had the most starts with Luleå HF last year while having one of the best U-18 seasons of a goaltender in SHL history, only to really cement himself as the undisputed No. 1 this season.

Despite falling in the draft, for whatever reason a team decided on, Wallstedt became the highest-drafted Swedish netminder of all-time back in July -- Oscar Dansk and Jacob Markstrom both went No. 31 when the league had 30 picks in the opening round. 

Wallstedt got into just one game with Sweden at last year's World Junior Championship, with the 2022 tournament serving as his real chance to shine. He ultimately finished with a 2-0-0 record, and even tried scoring on the empty net against the Russians in the first game, just to be cheeky. It's hard to declare Wallstedt as the best goalie of a tournament when no team played more than two games, but Wallstedt looked great in both of them, with his three goals against in the meeting against Russia coming off the backs of his own teammates.

Like any goalie, Wallstedt likes to stay humble -- even when he was the clear star of the show.

"It's great for the confidence, of course, but I couldn't do this without the team in front of me," Wallstedt said after his shutout.

Wallstedt said he spent the off-season focusing on moving his feet quicker and his off-ice conditioning -- "maybe it didn't look like that there in the end because I was a little bit tired," he said -- but it's something scouts have taken notice of. Wallstedt's agility has allowed him to shine in tight games late this year, and it's working.

"He seems so much more mature, composed and confident in his crease," a Swedish scout said. "He's always had a good headspace, but he feels more capable of controlling the shots sent his way and doesn't crack under pressure."

It's hard being a pro starting goalie at 18, but Wallstadt has handled it just as well as anyone. Wallstedt's .923 save percentage is the third best in the SHL this season and fourth all-time among U-20 goalies, with Johan Gustafsson and Jhonas Enroth both holding a .932. Wallstedt's numbers are similar to Jacob Markstrom's from 2009-10 at the same age, and many liken Wallstedt's abilities to that of Markstrom's, just with a smaller frame and better crease movement.

At this point, with no world junior future for Wallstedt, he'll likely turn his focus towards making a run at Sweden's men's Olympic team in February. The starting role definitely isn't out of the question, even at his age, if he continues to play the way he did before leaving for Alberta earlier this month.

And Wild fans should be thrilled with his development. So many people in hockey expected Wallstedt to go in the top 10, so landing a goalie of his quality that low is a steal. Minnesota is looking good with Kirill Kaprizov at the helm and there are some other solid young names in the system now. It might not be long until Wallstedt is clamoring for the starting role in Minnesota -- and maybe even a Vezina Trophy before long.

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