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Big-Game Gustafsson Preps For North America

by Dan Myers / Minnesota Wild

Minnesota Wild goaltending prospect Johan Gustafsson has played in big games virtually his entire hockey career.

In 2010, he led Team Sweden to the Silver Medal at the IIHF World Under-18 Championships in Minsk. Two years later, Gustafsson backstopped the Swedes to Gold at the 2012 World Junior Championships in Calgary, the country’s first win at the tournament in 31 years. Earlier this year, Gustafsson was on the Swedish roster that took home Gold in the World Championships.

And that's just his international career.

Since being drafted by the Wild in the seventh round of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, the 21-year-old has played at the highest level professionally in Sweden for two years, the Swedish Elite League (SEL), developing into one of the best goaltenders in that country – and one of the top young goalie prospects in the NHL.

Gustafsson signed his three-year, entry-level contract with the Wild last summer and is expected to begin his first season on this side of the Atlantic with the Iowa Wild this fall.

It is there where the Wild hope Gustafsson continues to build on his big-game pedigree and development with fellow prospect Darcy Kuemper.

Gustafsson is coming off a magnificent season with Lulea HF in Sweden, going 20-13 while limiting opponents to just 1.70 goals per game and stopping more than 93 percent of shots, leading Lulea to the league finals.

Those numbers are just a tick better than the ones he posted the season before (1.74 GAA, .929 SV%).

Gustafsson, who has played in Sweden against older competition for years, says he thrives when the stakes are highest.

"I think I play my best hockey then," Gustafsson said. "I love to have pressure on me."

It's often those pressure situations that help make a good goaltender great; especially he is able to rise to the occasion. That fact certainly hasn't been lost on Wild Assistant General Manager Brent Flahr.

"One thing about this kid is he's played in a lot of big games already for a young goalie," Flahr said.

Gustafsson said his game has changed a lot since the Wild drafted him in the latter stages of the draft three years ago, crediting two goalie coaches he's worked with in Sweden as well as the sheer number of games he's been able to play the last two years with Lulea.

"That's helped me a lot," he said of the experience. "Hopefully I'll be ready to come over here. I'm really looking forward to it."

The young goaltender has also grown physically -- Gustafsson is now 6-foo-2 and a shade over 200 pounds, a part of his development that has been especially pleasing to the Wild's leadership.

"He's worked at it," Flahr said. "I think his conditioning level from when we drafted him has drastically improved. Him playing pro hockey is a big advantage over some of the young goalies."

It has been Gustafsson’s development and performance in the SEL that made it possible for the Wild to include goaltending prospect Matt Hackett in the trade-deadline day deal that brought Jason Pominville to Minnesota.

With veterans Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding virtually locked into spots in Minnesota the next couple of seasons, Gustafsson and Kuemper are expected to share the net in Des Moines -- a competition that could impact the Wild's goaltender of the future.

Fortunately for Gustafsson, playing in big spots with the pressure on is nothing new.

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