EDINA -- After spending years as an every-night guy between the pipes, going back to his days at South St. Paul High School, Alex Stalock had to adjust when he became a backup at the NHL level.
Beginning with the Packers, and continuing at Cedar Rapids of the USHL and then Minnesota Duluth in college, Stalock knew he would see a vast majority of the starts in goal.
That continued his first two years in the pros, when he played in 61 games with Worcester of the American Hockey League in 2009-10 and 41 more the following season.
But beginning in 2011-12, Stalock would see action in just 76 games total between the AHL and the NHL over the next five years. Some of it was because of injury. Still, Stalock played so well in his first two years in the San Jose Sharks minor-league system he earned a promotion to the big club.
Stalock started 18 games with the Sharks in 2013-14, 19 in 2014-15 and nine his last year with San Jose in 2015-16: a far cry from his days of being a team's workhorse.
The inconsistent playing time took a toll on the quality of his play.
His final year in San Jose, Stalock was 3-5-2 with a 2.94 goals against average and an .884 save percentage. He knew it was time for something new, and he wanted to go somewhere where he could get his game back on track, even if it meant going back to the AHL.
"You've been doing that as a squirt, doing that at every level up the ladder. Then you get to the top and you're not playing. It can be frustrating, you're working hard and doing everything you can and it's just not clicking," Stalock said. "To take a step back was huge for me, to go back to the American League, it was good for me to go down there and get some minutes and feel good about my game."
That opportunity came with the Wild last season. Stalock was the top goaltender in Iowa almost all season, playing in 50 games for the first time since his first pro season.
He overcame an illness around the holidays that limited him physically and challenged him mentally, rebounding to have a strong second half and a late promotion to the big leagues in St. Paul.
"It was fun playing hockey again," Stalock said. "I think it happens anywhere, a guy sits on the bench for awhile ... and I don't know if a good word for it is stale, or what. But you never really get into a routine. It was fun to go back and get in there game after game and compete."
Now, after getting his game back where it needs to be, Stalock is ready for the challenge of keeping it there - despite potentially playing in a backup role once again.
The Wild let Darcy Kuemper go in free agency (he eventually landed in Los Angeles) and signed former Boston Bruins goaltender Niklas Svedberg to compete with Stalock for time behind Devan Dubnyk with Minnesota.
Regardless of how that battle shakes out at training camp, Stalock said his goal is play at a level that continues to push those around him, including Dubnyk, if he ends up with the NHL club this season.
"I'm going to go into camp with the same mindset. I've learned that you've gotta earn everything. Nothing [at this level] is handed to you," Stalock said. "Wherever I am every day, I need to show up. I want to be in the NHL, that's my goal and it's going to start day one of camp."
Stalock said that he's better prepared to be a backup in the NHL now than he was with San Jose. It helps that he's been through it before, but he's also had time over the past year to reflect on what went well with the Sharks and what he could have done better.
"I think maturity comes with that. When I earned a backup job in San Jose, I was 25, maybe 26 years old. Four years makes a difference, especially being around veterans like I was lucky enough to be around there," Stalock said. "You learn that you can't come to the rink and take a day off at practice. You've gotta prepare every day like it's going to be a game and that you're going to be in there.
"There's sometimes where you go two weeks without playing a game. That's the hard part. But with maturity, being 30 years old now, you gotta come to the rink every day and earn it."