Turns out, all the Minnesota Wild needed to do to save their season was turn the keys over to the “Gus Bus.” After starting Marc-Andre Fleury in three of five must-win games coming out of the break, all losses, Minnesota found themselves out of the playoff bubble.
Now, it’s Filip Gustavsson‘s net, and the Wild never looked back. Over the past six games, Gustavsson’s made five starts and gone 4-0-1 with a .948 save percentage. That one loss? A 33-save game where he held the Florida Panthers to one goal before falling in the shootout.
Not only is Minnesota back in the playoffs, but it looks like they have just a touch of security. The Wild are in the second Wild Card spot, but up four points on the Calgary Flames. They’re tied for the third spot in the Central Division with the Colorado Avalanche, but it doesn’t stop there. Minnesota’s now within five and four points of the Dallas Stars and Winnipeg Jets, respectively, for the top two spots in the Central.
And it’s all thanks to Gustavsson. Miraculously, the 24-year-old Ottawa Senators castoff is not just looking like the Wild’s best goalie this year. He’s been one of the top goalies in the NHL. Gustavsson has ranked second in save percentage (.928) and is eighth in Goals Saved Above Expected (GSAx), saving 16 goals more than he “should” have allowed based on shot quality.
Jesper Wallstedt is still the Goalie of the Future in Minnesota, but Gustavsson’s the Goalie of Right Now. What’s more, in a year where the Wild truly needed it, he’s arguably turning in the best season in franchise history. Pretty soon, it might not be all that arguable.
Yes, it’s just been 24 starts and 26 games. That’s not a ton. Even if Gustavsson starts three of every four games down the stretch, he’s going to max out at about 42 starts.
It’s impossible to understate his impact in those 24 starts, though. Let’s look at that 16 GSAx figure again, and how it ranks among past Wild goalies.
Top GSAx Seasons by a Wild goalie, since 2007-08
2022-23 Filip Gustavsson: 16.0 (26 games)
2014-15 Devan Dubnyk: 10.7 (39 games)
2013-14 Josh Harding: 8.4 (29 games)
2008-09 Josh Harding: 5.7 (19 games)
2009-10 Anton Khudobin: 2.5 (2 games)
Historically, Wild goalies have underperformed when measured against the expected goals allowed. That holds true even when posting top shooting percentages. Between the days of Jacques Lemaire, Mike Yeo, and Bruce Boudreau, Minnesota’s had such strong defenses that letting basically anything in is underperforming.
Shockingly, there are only four seasons in Wild history where a goalie has been in positive GSAx territory over 20-plus games. You saw the first three above. The fourth is Darcy Kuemper, who saved 0.4 GSAx in 21 games in 2015-16. Everyone else ranges from slightly negative to extremely negative.
Like those goalies before him, Gustavsson has the benefit of a strong defense. But there’s a drop-off from being the best of the best, like those Yeo/Boudreau teams were, to being third, and Gustavsson isn’t skipping a beat.
He is also fighting against a higher goal-scoring environment than Dubnyk and Harding faced in their days. In that magical 2014-15 run, Dubnyk racked up a .936 save percentage with the Wild. The league average that year was .912. Similar things hold true for Harding’s 2013-14 season (.933, league average was .912).
Gustavsson is putting up a .928 in a year where the average save percentage is .902, the lowest on record since 2007-08.
This is why, in fewer games and with a worse save percentage, Gustavsson’s impact on the standings out-strips almost everyone in Wild history.
Most Standings Points Above Replacement, Wild Goalies, since 2007-08
2014-15 Dubnyk: 7.5
2022-23 Gustavsson: 6.8
2015-16 Dubnyk: 6.0
2013-14 Harding: 5.4
2011-12 Niklas Backstrom: 5.1
With just 24 starts, the “Gus Bus” is giving Minnesota nearly seven points worth of value in the standings. Without him, they go from being four points in a playoff spot to tied with the awful Nashville Predators. And he’s very quickly closing in on Dubnyk’s mark for the top spot in Wild history.
The consistency is remarkable, as well. Hockey Reference declares 18 of his 24 starts to be “Quality Starts.” The definition of Quality Starts is a bit arbitrary, but it gets the job done enough for our purposes here. His .750 QS% beats out everyone but 2013-14 Harding (.808).
It’s an incredible glow-up for a goalie that was solid-to-good in the AHL and OK-ish in the NHL for the past two years. Where did this come from?
It looks out of nowhere. But maybe this was his true potential all along?
Gustavsson has a strong pedigree. The Pittsburgh Penguins drafted him in the second round of the 2016 Draft, only seven spots behind Carter Hart. Hart’s upside was widely regarded at the time, and he’s delivering on it now.
Why can’t the “Gus Bus” join him?
The data didn’t love Gustavsson so much during his development, but let’s take a look at how it stacks against Wallstedt.
Hockey Prospecting didn’t ever give Gustavsson more than a 56% chance of becoming an NHL starter. But then again, Gustavsson was born in June, making him one of the youngest goalies of his draft class. Wallstedt was born in November, one month past the mid-September draft eligibility cut-off, making him one of the oldest goalies in his.
Pretend for a moment that Gustavsson was four months older. Now, everything on his chart moves up a space. Once you do that, everything looks nearly identical to Wallstedt.
Ask yourself: How different is four months, really?
Maybe Gustavsson is not an elite goalie to the degree we’ve seen. But who knows? Maybe he is. The Wild might have two Goalies of the Future that will be sharing the net and battling for ice time over the next half-decade or more. A lot has to happen until that situation can manifest. But for now, having a Goalie of Right Now and a Goalie of The Future suits Minnesota just fine.
All data from Evolving-Hockey unless otherwise stated.