Detroit Red Wings 2021 NHL Draft Preview: Part III - The Goalie

Jesper Wallstedt 2021 NHL draft prospect
By Jeff Watters

July 2, 2021

Welcome to Part III of a four-part weekly series previewing the 2021 NHL Draft. In Part III, I’ll tackle the idea of drafting a goalie in the first round of the 2021 draft (more specifically, with a top 10 pick) and profile Swedish netminder Jesper Wallstedt.

Check out the rest of the series here:

Part I – The Forwards

Part II – The Defensemen

Part IV – The 22nd Pick (July 9)

Any discussion of the 6th overall pick would be incomplete without the inclusion of Jesper Wallstedt — and there hasn’t been a more divisive 2021 draft prospect than Jesper Wallstedt.

No, it’s not because there are questions about his upside, hockey IQ, character, or even his counting stats.

It’s because…he’s a goalie.

But there have been few goaltending prospects that have done what Wallstedt has done at such a young age.

The 6’3” stopper posted the fifth-lowest GAA in the SHL this season and did so as an 18-year-old. 

At just 15, he was one of the best goaltenders in the J20 SuperElit in Sweden.

He’s remarkably calm between the pipes, is as efficient with his movements as any goaltending prospect you’ll ever encounter, and he appears to be one of very few keepers who could be NHL ready just a couple of years removed from his draft season.

And yet, he’s not viewed as a slam dunk top-10 pick. 

In fact, for every Red Wings fan that’s comfortable with taking Wallstedt at 6, you’ll find a handful who want no part of the goaltender with a top 10 selection.

So, why isn’t everyone sold on Wallstedt? If it’s not his upside, hockey IQ, character, or counting stats, what could possibly prevent us from wanting a potential star who just may be the most talented player in the 2021 draft? 

The Red Wings have a poor track record of drafting and developing goalies.

Since 2014, the Red Wings have taken more goalies than any other team in the NHL (eight). In fact, they’re the only team to draft a goalie in every draft from 2014-2020.

And what exactly do they have to show for it? Well, we’re still waiting on that one.

I am by no means a goalie expert. I’ve never played or coached the position, and I don’t envy those that do or have. I also know very little of what goes on behind closed doors in an NHL organization when evaluating and assigning draft pick value to a goaltending prospect.

But what I do know is that the Red Wings haven’t had much success in this area.

At all.

Going all the way back to 2000, the Red Wings have drafted 17 goaltenders. Of those 17, just two have gone on to have NHL careers. 

Jimmy Howard and Petr Mrazek. 

Of those two, just one has gone on to be a reliable starting goaltender in the NHL. 

One.

Out of 17 draft picks. Over the course of two decades. The Red Wings have drafted and developed one starting goalie.

And he was taken 64th overall in the 2003 draft.

Jimmy Howard Detroit Red Wings
Jimmy Howard played in 543 games for the Red Wings. | Photo: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

If you believe in history repeating itself, you may want the Red Wings to steer clear of a stopper in the first round. 

On the other hand, it could be argued that this is the exact reason the Red Wings should be a team sprinting to the virtual podium to draft Wallstedt. 

Wallstedt isn’t some 5th round pick that’s rough around the edges and will take 6 years to develop. While proper development is critical for any prospect, a goaltender with Wallstedt’s pedigree could be just what the doctor ordered for the Red Wings.

He’s extremely advanced and much closer to the NHL than your typical 18-year-old goalie prospect. There would be much less of a burden on the Red Wings goaltending development staff to mold Wallstedt into an NHL goaltender because, well, he’s nearly there already.

For a team that’s struggled so mightily in this area of development, Wallstedt could be the answer.

Note: I do realize that recent draft picks — say, from 2015 on — shouldn’t be expected to contribute at the NHL level just yet, but the point remains: It’s not looking too promising. 

“Goalies are inexpensive and easy to acquire.” 

“Look no further than Jonathan Bernier if you want to see what a $3 million/year goalie can look like.”

Is this totally fair to say? Well, not exactly. 

For every Jonathan Bernier there’s a Carter Hutton (BUF – 3 years, $2.75 mil AAV), Scott Darling (CAR – 4 years, $4.15 mil AAV), and Steve Mason (WIN – 2 years, $4.1 mil AAV). 

Generally speaking, you have to pay a tad more than $3 million annually to persuade a reliable starter to sign with your team. 

Then again, as bad as the Red Wings have been at drafting and developing goalies, they’ve done well to bring in a couple of very good veteran netminders in Jonathan Bernier and Thomas Greiss. They’ve also done so on very reasonable contracts.

So, the question then becomes, can the Wings rely on solid goaltending being available via trade or free agency when they’re about to enter their window of contention? And how much will it cost to acquire these netminders?

The debate here is relatively straightforward:

Those against drafting Wallstedt would say you simply don’t spend a 1st round pick on a goalie. They can be acquired for much less on the trade market or later in the draft. Reliable veteran goaltenders can also be had for a few million bucks in free agency.

Those in favor of taking Wallstedt would claim if a potential franchise goalie — and maybe the most talented player in his draft class — is available at pick 6, you take him. There’s no guarantee you’ll be able to find another Jonathan Bernier when you’ve got all of the other pieces in place. In Wallstedt, you may be able to set yourself up between the pipes for the next decade.

Let’s look back at some recent Cup winners (and how they were acquired):

Marc-Andre Fleury won three Stanley Cups for the Penguins — he was drafted 1st overall. Andrei Vasilevskiy is the best goaltender in the world and is the Conn Smythe favorite in 2021 after winning the Cup in 2020 — also a 1st round pick.

But Corey Crawford and Jonathan Quick have also won two cups apiece. They were drafted in the 2nd and 3rd rounds, respectively. Jordan Binnington? Third-round pick. Braden Holtby? Fourth-rounder.

Interestingly, of the 20 Stanley Cup winners from 2000-2020 (the Cup was not awarded in 2005 due to the lockout), just 6 teams won with a goaltender that was drafted by another team — and two of those netminders are Hall-of-Famers who were acquired via trade. The last team to do it? The 2011 Boston Bruins (Tim Thomas).

Dominik Hasek wins Stanley Cup with Detroit Red Wings
The Red Wings had to ship out Slava Kozlov and a 1st round pick to attain the services of Dominik Hasek in July, 2001. | Photo: Frank Gunn, AP

So, since 2000, 70% of Cup winners went the distance with a goalie they drafted and developed themselves. Meanwhile, the Red Wings have drafted just one reliable starter over that same period.

Certainly some food for thought.

The Opportunity Cost.

Snagging Wallstedt with the 6th pick also means not selecting one of the players we’ve covered in Parts I and II of this series. That’s certainly something to factor in here.

It’s been mentioned ad nauseum — and it’s the most obvious statement to make — but the Red Wings need elite talent. Lots and lots of it. Should they be looking to acquire what is often considered the final piece of the puzzle while they’re still picking in the top 10?

It’s a fair question.

Well, the Red Wings could grab Wallstedt at 6 and then pick a skater with the 22nd pick. Talent-wise, there’s not likely to be much of a difference between the players picked in the teens and the players picked in the 20s in this draft. Whoever the Wings pick at 22 will be a very good prospect.

What if a player like Fabian Lysell slipped to 22? Would you be upset if the Red Wings walked away with a pair of talented Swedes in Wallstedt and Lysell? 

Typically, in another draft, I think the talk of opportunity cost would be a much more significant factor than it is this year. For example, drafting a Yaroslav Askarov ahead of a Lucas Raymond in 2020 would’ve been…a choice.

But in 2021, the gap between the players widely considered to be in the top 10-12 doesn’t appear to be all that big. And with an additional first-round pick, the Wings would still be able to grab a very good skater on Day 1 if they decided to use their first pick on Wallstedt.

The Actual Cost (and the implications of future roster construction).

I’ve heard this argument presented elsewhere and I think it’s an important angle to cover here. It goes a little something like this:

“If the Red Wings strike gold with Wallstedt and he becomes one of the league’s premier goaltenders, they’re going to have to pay him upwards of $10 – $11 million per year. This could significantly handicap them moving forward and saddle them with an unmovable albatross of a contract if Wallstedt doesn’t age well.”

Ok, so let’s say the Red Wings draft Jesper Wallstedt. Let’s also say that he follows Spencer Knight’s path to the NHL and makes his NHL debut in his draft-plus-2 season (Spring 2023).

If Wallstedt immediately becomes the Red Wings starting netminder and quickly establishes himself as one of the best stoppers in the league, the Red Wings will have to pay up, right?

Although the NHL salary cap is not expected to increase any time soon, any player drafted from 2021 on shouldn’t have an impact on the Red Wings’ ability to work the cap. Wallstedt’s second contract  — which could reasonably kick in around 2025-26 in this scenario — would likely come in at a reasonable cap hit. 

Take the three-year, $10.5 million bridge deal Steve Yzerman inked Andrei Vasilevskiy to in 2016. The deal came on the heels of two impressive, albeit part-time, campaigns that saw the Russian stopper post a .913 GAA. 

Let’s account for inflation (and the fact that Vasilevskiy started just 34 games preceding his 2016 extension) and say Wallstedt’s second contract comes in somewhere between $5 and $6 million. More specifically, a three-year pact that doesn’t walk him right to free agency. 

This brings us to the 2028-29 season. Surely, the cap has risen, Steve Yzerman has locked up franchise cornerstones to reasonable deals, and he’s well-positioned to either stick with Wallstedt or trade his rights for a boatload of assets. 

If this is the concern, well, it’s a good problem to have. You cross that bridge when you come to it. 

Even if Wallstedt hypothetically demands a contract with a $9 – $10 million AAV, this should not be expected to hamstring the Red Wings (or any other well-run organization). As long as Steve Yzerman isn’t planning on handing out Abdelkader, Nielsen, and Helm-like contracts, the cap should remain manageable.

But goalies are risky…

Yes, there’s an inherent risk with goaltenders. There’s absolutely no disputing that. 

From 2000-2014, 26 goalies have been taken in the 1st round of the NHL Draft. Of those 26, eleven have suited up for 300 games or more — a modest achievement; ten will have played 400 games (Jonathan Bernier and Andrei Vasilevskiy will get there barring injury); seven have played in 500 games, and four have surpassed the 600 game mark.

Over that same period, eight goalies have been taken in the top ten of the draft. Three of those goalies have played in over 600 games, while the other five have played in 723 contests combined.

The risk, especially in the top 10, is real. With all things being equal, it’s almost a coin flip.

But there’s also risk associated with just about every player in the projected top 10 of the 2021 NHL Draft.

In fact, this isn’t something that’s unique to 2021.

During the same period (2000-2014), nearly every draft features three to five skaters who could be considered flops.

But in 2021, it’s truly wide open.

There’s a reality in which the best player to come out of this draft isn’t even taken in the top 10.

We also may look back on this draft in a few years and realize the Red Wings were choosing between a franchise goaltender, a couple of bottom 6 forwards, and a bottom pairing defenseman at 6th overall. 

Yes, Jesper Wallstedt could very well be the most impactful player available to the Red Wings. And if that’s the case, do you really want to draft a forward who may be able to chip in 40 points per year or a defender who plays reliable third pair minutes on the backend over someone who may be able to contend for a Vezina by the time he’s 23?

I understand this is all conjecture — but so is claiming that ‘x’ number of players will be better choices than Wallstedt just because he’s a goalie.

Could Wallstedt become just an average NHL goaltender? Sure he could. 

Is the bar for a keeper higher than it is for a skater? Absolutely. A forward or defenseman taken in the top 10 who flops can usually carve out a career as a fourth-liner or 6th/7th defenseman, while a goalie who flops isn’t in the NHL.

It’s about risk tolerance — but it’s also about your belief in the individual. 

The Goalie

You’ve seen it in every discussion centered around drafting goaltenders (including this article):

Usually. Typically. Historically. Probably. Most likely.

There’s a mountain of uncertainty when drafting a goaltender — this much is clear. But we rarely acknowledge the fact that every goaltender is an individual. This especially rings true of Wallstedt.

Once again, I’m no self-proclaimed goalie expert. But it’s not hard to see something special in Jesper Wallstedt. He’s not your typical teenage netminder.

So, who is Jesper Wallstedt?

Jesper Wallstedt | Luleå HF (SHL) | 6-3 | 214 lbs

Wallstedt could be the first goaltender to be drafted in the top 10 since Carey Price was taken 5th overall by the Canadiens in 2005. Wallstedt and Sebastian Cossa (WHL) will follow Spencer Knight and Yaroslav Askarov as the 3rd and 4th goalies to be taken in the first round in the past three years.

Why Jesper Wallstedt makes sense for the Red Wings:

The Red Wings have a number of goaltending prospects in their system. The problem is, none of these netminders projects to be NHL starters. There is no “goalie of the future” and Detroit has been unsuccessful in their efforts to mine the mid-to-late rounds for hidden gems. It may be time for a new strategy here.

You’ve all heard about Jesper Wallstedt’s game. He’s perhaps the most technically sound teenage keeper you’ll ever watch.  He’s also incredibly smart, quick, and athletic. He’s not flashy — and that’s because he doesn’t need to be. He’s rarely out of position and reads the play so well that he seldom needs to scramble and rely on athleticism to make a big stop (though he has the ability to do so).

His efficient movements almost seem effortless at times. It’s as if he’s consciously trying to exert as little energy as possible. You’ll routinely see Wallstedt remain in the butterfly when the puck is being worked around in the corners. In doing so, he eliminates the entire bottom of the net and comfortably tracks the puck while shifting from post to post.

Minimal effort. Maximum efficiency. Wallstedt is very, very advanced.

He’s probably the best goaltending prospect to ever come out of Sweden (yes, goaltending prospect). That’s a big deal. If Håkan Andersson and company believe he’s the generational talent some others do, it would not be surprising to see Wallstedt become a Red Wing.

Why he doesn’t:

In terms of Wallstedt’s game, he’s going to have to make a lot of the same adjustments any other goalie prospect would need to make.

Wallstedt already has incredible body control, but he’s still going to need to improve his ability to contain rebounds and eliminate secondary chances.

Also, just like European skaters, goaltenders need to adjust to the North American game. The ice is smaller, the pace is quicker, and shots arrive much sooner. If the Red Wings aren’t convinced this will be a smooth transition, they may not be interested in taking a European netminder this early in the draft.

If you recall Steve Yzerman’s post-draft lottery presser, (around the 10:56 mark) he stated the following about the players the Red Wings perceive to be among the top 10 on their draft board:

“They’re all different positions…potentially all different positions. Maybe not goaltenders, I don’t know.”

Do with that information what you will. Honestly, it probably tells us nothing at all. 

The bottom line:

I mean, the guy has “Wall” in his last name. How can you go wrong here? 

In all seriousness, if the Red Wings truly believe Wallstedt is the answer and see him as the best player available, fans should be excited. He’s the most highly touted goalie to come along in a long time and the Red Wings have really struggled to find netminders elsewhere in the draft. The stars may be aligning in 2021.

Final Thoughts

Clearly, there are many layers to the arguments for and against drafting a goaltender early in the 2021 NHL Draft. But it’s important not to rest on the laurels of historical draft data when evaluating whether or not it’s wise to go in this direction in 2021. The New York Rangers’ decision to select Al Montoya 6th overall in 2004 should not influence the Red Wings decision to potentially draft Jesper Wallstedt 6th overall 17 years later.

If it’s a matter of draft philosophy, that’s one thing. But it’s also important not to cling to beliefs of years past and ignore the 2021 landscape. 

Is it risky? Yeah, it is. But nearly every player in this year’s top 10 is going to come with an element of risk. 

More than anything, the objective of this piece was to play devil’s advocate; to address the common gripes that many have with the idea of using up a premium draft pick on a goalie, and try to make the option a little more palatable if it’s the direction the Red Wings decide to go on July 23.

So, should the Red Wings draft Jesper Wallstedt? I don’t know — I’m no goalie expert (not sure if I mentioned that already).

Featured Image of Jesper Wallstedt: hockeysverige.se

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