2010 draft pick Johan Gustafsson is coming over and will start off with the AHL team in Iowa.
By BRIAN HALL FS North
ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Since being selected in the sixth round of the 2010 NHL Draft, goaltender Johan Gustafsson has been out of the spotlight for
Minnesota Wild fans while remaining in his native Sweden to play professional hockey.
Gustafsson had waited to make his move to North America. Meanwhile,
Matt Hackett and then
Darcy Kuemper have held the coveted position of being Minnesota's "goaltender of the future." Performing in North America, as Hackett and Kuemper have done, kept them at the forefront and in the conversation when the Wild's top prospects were discussed.
The organization always had an eye on Gustafsson though, watching as his game developed playing in the Swedish Elite League and on the big stage of different levels of world championships.
"One thing about this kid is he's played in a lot of big games already for a young goalie, and had a lot of success," Minnesota assistant general manager Brent Flahr said last week with Gustafsson in town participating in the team's development camp. "He has some things he certainly needs to work on and he's aware of that. But he was really anxious to come over and play in North America and the pro game over here and learn the nuances it takes to be a goalie in the National league."
Gustafsson, 21, will soon get his chance to show Wild fans his game. He signed an three-year, entry-level contract with Minnesota in 2012 and will make his North American debut this season for the Wild's American Hockey League team in Iowa. With starting goaltender
Niklas Backstrom re-signed to go with Josh Harding at the NHL level, Gustafsson and Kuemper will share time with the Iowa Wild this season.
Since being drafted in 2010, all Gustafsson has done has compete at the highest level in Sweden for Lulea HF of the Elitserien League, competing against players older than him, and playing for Sweden in world championships. He was on Sweden's gold-medal winning team at the 2013 World Championships, but didn't play. He was the top netminder for Sweden in the 2012 World Junior Championships, winning a gold medal and also played on the silver-medal winning team in the 2010 World U18 Championships.
"I love to have pressure on me," Gustafsson said. "I think I play my best hockey then. I've played in some big games here the last two years, the World Championships and the European finals in Lulea this year. We lost that one. It was a tough loss, but I think I had a good experience from that I'm going to take with me the rest of my career."
Last season with Lulea HF, he was 20-13 with a 1.70 goals-against average and .932 save percentage during the regular season and then helped the team to the league finals with a 2.03 goals-against average and .925 save percentage in the playoffs. The previous season he carried a 1.74 goals-against average and .929 save percentage, and was up for the league's rookie of the year award.
Gustafsson was ready to come to North America and expects to play at Iowa next season. He believes his game has developed considerably since the 2010 draft when Minnesota nabbed him in the sixth round with the 159th overall pick.
"Oh, (my game has) changed a lot," Gustafsson said. "I got a whole lot better since three years ago. I had two great goalie coaches who taught me a lot the last two years in Lulea, in Sweden. It's been awesome for me. I think I played 30 games each year and that's helped me a lot. So, hopefully I'll be ready to come over here."
Gustafsson might be prepared more physically as well. He's filled out his 6-foot-2 frame at 206 pounds and looks strong even out of his pads.
"He's worked at it," Flahr said. "I think his conditioning level from when we drafted him has drastically improved. By him playing in pro hockey is a big advantage over some of the young goalies. He's playing against men. He's playing against quality players every night and he seems to have handled it."
The Wild traded Hackett as part of the package to land forward
Jason Pominville at the trade deadline last year, creating more room. Now, Gustafsson will have his chance to finally compete as a member of the Wild's organization and maybe put his name in the running for the "goaltender of the future" title.
Gustafsson will go to Iowa and play with Kuemper, who made his NHL debut last year, and the two will prepare for any potential call-ups and add the internal competition Minnesota desires.
"I think Darcy Kuemper really emerged last year, even the year before," Flahr said. "He was the CHL goalie of the year and really performed well. Then he stepped into the American league and Hackett was the guy. He waited his turn and then Hackett went down a little bit and he got to run with it and was one of the better goalies in the American league. So, he's got a real good demeanor for a goalie. He's big. He's professional and really performed well.
"Obviously we have two goalies up here right now, but another year down there of seasoning. I think initially he'll get the call as being the starter and play whatever the amount of games. But Gustafsson has also played a few years of pro hockey in Sweden already and had a lot of success, both at the Swedish Elite League level and the national team level. He's going to come in here. He wants to play for his games. Having competition between two good, young goalies is very healthy."