Filip Gustavsson’s Wild future hinges on less erratic play: ‘Coaches and teammates hate that’

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DENVER – Well, you’ve got to at least appreciate Filip Gustavsson’s honesty and the fact that he knows he hasn’t been up to snuff this season.

Not only didn’t Gustavsson take solace in his 38-save performance against the Colorado Avalanche, the league’s most daunting home team — which included a 17-for-17 third period in which the Avs looked like they were on a period-long power play — but he volunteered after Friday night’s 2-1 overtime loss that it’s these games, where he shows he’s so capable of delivering brilliant goaltending, that are driving the Wild bonkers the most.

“That’s unfortunately been the whole thing all year,” Gustavsson said. “I had a few good games, and I had some very bad ones. Coaches and teammates hate that because they don’t know what they get from you. So, all I can do is try to be more consistent in the future, and that’s what I’m working on.”

At least he owns it. Many professional athletes are defiant anytime anyone critiques their play or questions anything about them.

But Gustavsson has looked in the mirror and isn’t satisfied with what he sees.

We all saw him steal Game 1 of last year’s playoffs with a 51-save masterpiece in a double-overtime win after a season in which he posted the league’s second-best save percentage and goals-against average. And we all saw the 41-save opening night shutout against Florida this season where he looked like he was going to pick up right where he left off. Heck, just a few weeks ago, we watched him rob Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl left and right to steal a road win against the Edmonton Oilers with 41 saves.

But the two games before that?

He was pulled against the Vancouver Canucks after giving up five goals and looking like he would have given up a dozen had he stayed in. Then he blew a game late against the Buffalo Sabres after not swallowing a point shot.

And the two games after that Oilers’ thievery?

He couldn’t protect a pair of one-goal leads in a loss against the Carolina Hurricanes. And the Wild were blown out by the host Nashville Predators in a game in which the expected goals indicated he should have given up 1.91 goals at five-on-five and 2.87 in all situations. Instead, he allowed five goals at five-on-five and six overall.

And let’s be honest: Had it not been for Kirill Kaprizov putting the Wild on his back against the San Jose Sharks, the storyline that game would have been another sub-par outing from Gustavsson.

Now, when Gustavsson analyzed his own play after the OT loss in Denver, he was clearly echoing the sentiment of the coaching staff and, if you want to bet your bottom dollar, general manager Bill Guerin, who traded for him two summers ago from the Ottawa Senators and awarded him with a three-year, $11.25 million contract last summer.

“I think he’s right on with what he’s talking about,” coach John Hynes said when told what Gustavsson said after Friday’s game. “I think he’s played some really good hockey in my time here, but I think there’s been some inconsistencies, and it was nice to see him be able to play that type of game. You need strong goaltending to give yourself a chance to win.

“Now it’s: What’s the next one gonna be like? That’s something that we’ve talked with him about. He knows that, and down the stretch, we have a pretty big week ahead of us (with the Predators, Arizona Coyotes and Anaheim Ducks on the upcoming homestand). We keep fighting, we keeping staying right there, and this is a big opportunity. But you’re not gonna be able to make a strong push over the course of the next week if you’re not getting the type of goaltending we got from (Marc-Andre) Fleury last night (in Arizona) and Gustavsson tonight.”

Plain and simple, Gustavsson has been outperformed by the 39-year-old Fleury, especially the past several weeks, with a .900 or lower save percentage in eight of his 10 starts before Friday’s and an .880 save percentage and 3.33 goals-against average during that stretch. Conversely, in his past 10 appearances, Fleury is 6-2 with a 2.16 goals-against average and .921 save percentage.

Because of the past two goaltending performances, the Wild elevated from 29th in the league to 28th in save percentage (.895). But they entered Friday’s game with the league’s worst third-period save percentage (.876), and the reality is if the Wild had even average goaltending this season, especially from Gustavsson, they’d easily be in a playoff position and not six points out heading into Saturday’s NHL action.

Gustavsson is tied for 20th in the NHL with 17 wins, 50th in the NHL amongst qualifying goalies with an .894 save percentage and 53rd with a 3.26 GAA. He’s 31st in the league with an .871 save percentage against power plays, although, to be fair, Fleury is dead last at .840. That’s a major part of why the Wild rank 29th in the league on the penalty kill (74.4 percent).

How Gustavsson responds the rest of the season is important to see, because the Wild can’t afford to have this type of goaltending again next season. He must prove he’s worthy of being the clear-cut No. 1 or Guerin could shop him around the league this offseason, with a number of teams in dire need of goaltending.

This is partly why it would not be surprising to see youngster Jesper Wallstedt get recalled at some point this month to get a string of starts. The Wild must see what they have in the AHL All-Star heading into next season — they can’t have that one brutal seven-goal-against loss in his NHL debut at the Dallas Stars in January be his full NHL sample size heading into the offseason.

If Wallstedt shows he warrants an NHL job full-time, Guerin could opt to re-sign Fleury if he chooses not to retire and have Wallstedt be mentored by the future Hall of Famer or let Fleury go and return with a Gustavsson-Wallstedt combo.

The other option is to come back with Gustavsson and Fleury and let Wallstedt bake some more in Iowa, but if that happens one better pray the Baby Wild vastly improve next season, because it can’t be healthy for this franchise to have one of hockey’s best goalie prospects tend goal behind that Iowa mess indefinitely.

What was uplifting about Gustavsson’s performance Friday is how he improved during the game. Colorado scored a goal on its first shot of the game, which was a Grade A scoring chance after some soft Wild board play, though Gustavsson did also give Artturi Lehkonen a five hole the size of Montana to shoot through. But after that Gustavsson settled in admirably and made clutch saves the rest of the game, including 15 stops on superstars Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Cale Makar.

Unlike in Nashville, where he didn’t stand his ground, Gustavsson was fighting for position, battling to find pucks and, frankly, competing.

“If you give up that early and let your mind take over, you’re going to be in one,” Gustavsson said. “MacKinnon’s going to score five on you if your mind’s not there all the way. You just have to let it go. It was some emotional days. We lost a couple players and we tried to just stay strong as a team and really battle for each other, and that’s what we did today. We’re going to have results in the future.”

There’s no doubt Gustavsson was correct about the Wild playing hard in spite of two difficult days inside the locker room.

No proud hockey player with playoffs as an aspiration enjoys watching their GM trade away teammates for draft picks the way Guerin did with popular Brandon Duhaime, Connor Dewar and Pat Maroon. But the Wild worked their tail off for 60-plus minutes against the league’s most prolific home team and severely outchanced the Avs through 40 minutes before Colorado came at the Wild like an avalanche in the third.

Gustavsson was there to hold the fort at every turn.

Now, as he said and Hynes expects, Gustavsson needs to do it again his next start, whether that’s Sunday against the Predators or Tuesday against the Coyotes.

And then again his next start. And again. And again.

“I think it starts in net, and the last two nights we got very good goaltending,” Hynes said. “If you play a lot of intense games, you need good goaltending to win regularly in the league. It starts there, and the last couple of games — the style of game, the mentality we played with — I think is a good recipe to move forward and try to have a good week coming up.”

And the week after that and the week after that.

As Gustavsson said, consistency is the objective.

He showed last season he is capable of it. But he hasn’t shown it this season.

And remember, it was Gustavsson himself who said in July when he signed his new contract that he hopes during the length of this contract to prove he’s “the No. 1 … to be the really outspoken No. 1, to play most of the games and hope to sign another longer deal in the NHL. This feels like a proving point now, that I can keep playing at such a high level for consecutive years in a row.”

For now, let’s start with consecutive games in a row.

(Photo: Isaiah J. Downing / USA Today)

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