How Wild goaltender Filip Gustavsson turned himself into a star
Though the Wild haven’t named their starting goaltender for Game 1 of the playoffs, it’s a good bet that Gustavsson will get the nod
Looking back on it now, it’s fitting that Filip Gustavsson found out he was traded as he was taking out the trash.
They say one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, after all, and that’s exactly what the 24-year-old Swede has proven to be for the Minnesota Wild.
Though the Wild haven’t named their starting goaltender for Game 1 of the upcoming opening round of the NHL playoffs, it’s a good bet that Gustavsson will be in net. He has been a godsend this season with a 23-9-7 record, a 2.10 goals-against average, and a .931 save percentage.
Not bad considering Gustavsson entered this season with fewer than 25 starts under his belt. He perfectly summed up his unexpected rise to stardom a few weeks ago, saying, “It’s been a helluva year.”
Indeed. All because of a trade between the Wild and the Ottawa Senators on July 12, 2022, that barely moved the needle at the time.
The timing of everything came as a surprise to Gustavsson. He remembers playing cards with some friends in his hometown of Skelleftea, Sweden, when the trade went down. They stayed up into the wee hours of the morning, and before finally going to bed, he figured he should probably take out the trash.
As soon as he got back inside, Gustavsson checked his phone and saw he had a few missed calls from Senators general manager Pierre Dorion. He immediately called back and learned he had been traded. He got a call from Wild general manager Bill Guerin a few minutes later.
“I was kind of happy,” Gustavsson said. “I had one year left (on my contract), and it was like, if this is my last year (in North America), at least I get to see a new city, make new friends, and play for a new team. I was very happy to get a change.”
It worked out better than anyone could have imagined.
‘You want to at least try to play’
After struggling to gain traction in North America at first, Gustavsson started to envision what life would look like back in his native Sweden.
He ran through the different scenarios in his head. What if he just moved home and played in the Swedish Hockey League? He’d make more than enough money doing that. He’d have a good life close to his family and friends. He’d be happy.
Every time Gustavsson let himself go down that road, however, a little voice inside his head told him to keep going. He grew up watching Swedish legend Henrik Lundqvist star for the New York Rangers between the pipes and hoped some day to play in the NHL himself.
“You want to at least try to play at least one game in the NHL,” Gustavsson said. “Just to see how the atmosphere is.”
It took him some time to get there.
After getting selected by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round of the 2016 NHL Draft, Gustavsson got traded to the Senators soon after signing his entry-level contract. He struggled with consistency in the minors once he moved to North America for good. The sheer amount of games proved to be the most difficult adjustment for him.
“You’re not used to playing as many games in Sweden,” he admitted. “That was a big change for me.”
Eventually, he got a taste of the NHL with the Senators, making his NHL debut on March 17, 2020, and parlaying that into some solid play. He finished the 2020-21 season with a 5-1-2 record, 2.16 goals-against average and .933 save percentage.
Though he looked very much like a prospect on the rise at that point, Gustavsson struggled to build on that success. He finished the 2021-22 season with a 5-12-1 record, 3.55 goals-against average and .892 save percentage. He actually spent most of his time with the Belleville Senators of the American Hockey League.
Asked if he had doubts about making it, Gustavsson paused for a second, then replied, “Yeah, of course. I think everyone has those doubts sometimes.”
Which makes the fact that Gustavsson is currently living out his childhood dream even more meaningful. Where he was 365 days ago isn’t lost on him.
“Just playing games and getting ready for the AHL playoffs,” Gustavsson said. “That was pretty much it.”
Now he’s getting ready for the NHL playoffs.
‘We thought we were getting a project’
In another life, instead of starring for the Wild right now, Gustavsson might still be trying to catch on with the Senators.
He certainly wasn’t a part of the initial plan for the Wild.
In fact, Guerin made it very clear last offseason that he had every intention of rolling into this season with the team’s two veteran, talented goalies, Marc-Andre Fleury and Cam Talbot, sharing the crease. Maybe even a 50-50 split between them. Any thoughts of that came crumbling down at the 2022 NHL Draft.
After the Wild signed Fleury to a new contract — a move that was supposed to fortify the position — Talbot made it known through his agent George Bazos that he wanted out. The decision to start Fleury in the playoffs had miffed Talbot to the point that the relationship was beyond repair.
As much as Guerin stood his ground at the time, less than a week later, he shipped Talbot to Ottawa. Fortunately for the Wild, analytics guru Mats Sels, goaltending coach Freddy Chabot, and a handful of others within the front office, had already started doing some research on young players throughout the league. Just in case.
They identified Gustavsson as a potential option.
“Honestly, we thought we were getting a project,” Guerin said. “We didn’t expect this.”
Not many people did. As Wild owner Craig Leipold puts it, moving on from Talbot was the main purpose of the trade last offseason. Whatever they got from Gustavsson was a bonus.
“We needed a backup and he was the guy we decided to add,” Leipold said. “I can’t speak for the hockey ops group because they certainly knew more than I did. But what I had heard was he was going to be a serviceable backup for Flower. That’s pretty much all we were thinking he would be.”
The start of Gustavsson’s tenure with the Wild couldn’t have gone much worse. He came on in relief of Fleury in the opening week and allowed three goals in a 7-6 loss to the Los Angeles Kings. He got the start a couple of nights later and allowed five goals in a 6-3 loss to the Colorado Avalanche.
As time progressed, the 24-year-old Gustavsson started to string together a few good games in a row. Then a few more good games on top of that. The perception slowly started to change.
“I remember talking about it. We said, ‘If this keeps up, it’s not a fluke,’ ” Guerin said. “We all kind of agreed, like, ‘If this keeps up for the next little while, he actually might be this good.’ ”
The particular stretch that proved just how good Gustavsson is came with the Wild struggling out of the bye week. He proved to be a stabilizing force at an important time, finishing with a 5-1-2 record, 1.62 goals-against average and .946 save percentage in February, then followed that with a 4-1-2 record, 1.80 goals-against average and .944 save percentage in March.
All the while Fleury has been his biggest cheerleader. There hasn’t been any animosity from the future hall of famer despite the fact that Gustavsson has started to take on a much bigger role.
“He’s had a really big impact on Gus because I think he has kind of taken him in, like, under his wing,” Guerin said of Fleury. “He doesn’t view him as an adversary. He views him as a teammate. That’s not always the case.”
That has allowed Gustavsson to flourish without feeling any sort of awkwardness. He consistently praises Fleury for helping him elevate his game.
Now the Wild have a pair of goaltenders who could take them a long way in the playoffs.
“I don’t remember exactly when it hit me that Gus is a special goaltender,” Leipold said. “All of a sudden we were talking about it like, ‘Wow, we have two starting goaltenders.’ It came out of nowhere with Gus. He’s going to be a star in this league for a really long time.”
‘He’s got a cool perspective on life’
There’s an anonymity to video games that Gustavsson loves.
Whether he made 40 saves in a shutout win or got shelled in a blowout loss, when he logs onto his computer with some of his teammates after games, he doesn’t have to worry about any of it. He can just play League of Legends and get lost for as long as he wants.
“I don’t have to talk to someone if I don’t want to,” he said. “I can play my video games and no one cares who I am.”
His ability to disconnect from the sport when away from the rink is something Gustavsson’s teammates admire about him. When not playing video games in his free time, he can be found hanging out with his dogs Nemo and Nova, or playing disc golf around the Twin Cities.
“Sometimes we get so focused on the game that it starts to feel like life and death out there,” said teammate Jon Merrill, who played disc golf with Gustavsson on a recent road trip. “I think he does a good job of understanding what hockey is. Just a really interesting guy. He’s got a cool perspective on life.”
Asked a couple of months ago what he has learned about Gustavsson this season, coach Dean Evason noted that he’s much funnier than he appears on the surface.
That was on display after the Wild acquired a bunch of Swedes at the trade deadline. Talking to reporters after a game, Gustavsson joked that he’s petitioning to change the official language inside the locker room. He kept a straight face for a couple of seconds, then walked away without saying another word.
“He’s a pretty funny kid,” Guerin said. “He’s got a good sense of humor under there.”
As he’s started to feel more comfortable in his own skin, Gustavsson’s personality has started to shine through. He routinely cracks jokes to keep things light, though he might be most known for the riddles that he challenges his teammates to solve.
“He’s definitely got some good riddles,” captain Jared Spurgeon said. “Most of them I’m not able to share. They’re pretty funny. He gets the guys laughing.”
Need more proof that Gustavsson is coming into his own? After a game last month, he sewed up Fleury’s socks as revenge for a prank earlier this season. As the resident prankster in the locker room, Fleury joked that he would never attack a fellow goaltender.
“He crossed the line,” Fleury said with a laugh. “No, he’s a great kid. Everybody enjoys him. He’s fun to have around.”
It’s not a coincidence that Gustavsson is thriving this season considering how comfortable he feels on and off the ice. It’s the first time in his career he’s had that feeling. Because of that, he will forever be grateful for the trade last offseason.
“All you need is someone to believe in you,” Gustavsson said. “Then you have to take the opportunity and take good care of it.”
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