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Eye On The Future

Marc-Andre Fleury’s return puts future Hall of Fame goalie in position to develop Jesper Wallstedt and move on from Filip Gustavsson.

Marc-Andre Fleury signed a deal to remain with the Wild through next season. (MHM Photo / Rick Olson)

Marc-Andre Fleury appears certain to retire as a member of the Minnesota Wild. It just won’t be after this season, as many had expected. That became official on Wednesday as Fleury signed a one-year, $2.5 million contract to return for a 21st NHL season and a third full one in Minnesota.

Fleury assured reporters that will be it for him.

“I’m grateful,” he said. “I’m grateful to keep doing what I love for one more season. I thought about it a lot this year, but still loving to compete, the intensity, the pursuit to be in the best league in the world also, and compete with young guys. I feel very lucky to be able to do it.”

The decision by Wild general manager Bill Guerin to bring back Fleury is an interesting one. Fleury’s season has been a special one — he passed Patrick Roy for the second-most regular season victories in NHL history and became the fourth goalie in league history to play in 1,000 games — but there also has been plenty of frustration. 

He will enter his start in the Wild’s season finale on Thursday night against Seattle with an .895 saves percentage, his worst since he posted an .898 save percentage with Pittsburgh in his second season in 2005-06. His 2.98 goals-against average is his highest since he had a 3.02 goals against in his final season with the Penguins in 2016-17. The most disappointing thing for Fleury is that this will be the first time in 18 years his team won’t make the playoffs.

Marc-Andre Fleury will return next season for his third full campaign in a Minnesota Wild sweater. (MHM Photo / Rick Olson)

It has been a rough season for the Wild and especially for the goaltending duo of Fleury and Filip Gustavsson. Gustavsson had a fantastic first season with the Wild in 2022-23, finishing second in the NHL in goals-against average (2.10) and second in save percentage (.931). Gustavsson signed a three-year, $11.25 million contract last offseason, but his goals against has shot up to 3.06 and his save percentage has sunk to .899.

Wild should shop Gustavsson, make room for Wallstedt
With Fleury locked in to return, there is no guarantee Gustavsson will be back. The Wild have given two late-season starts to 2021 first-round pick Jesper Wallstedt. He responded with a 24-save shutout on April 7 in a 4-0 victory at Chicago and then made 27 saves on April 13 in a 6-2 victory at San Jose. Those two wins, granted against non-playoff teams, partially helped to erase the bad taste left from Wallstedt’s NHL debut in January at Dallas. Wallstedt stopped 27 of 34 shots in a 7-2 loss before being sent back to Iowa.

This marked the second season for Wallstedt with the Wild’s affiliate in the American Hockey League. He is still only 21 years old, but pairing him with Fleury next season makes a lot of sense.

That makes shopping Gustavsson this offseason the logical move. Unlike so many of his teammates, Gustavsson has zero trade protection and moving him would open $3.75 million in salary-cap space. The Wild also would have to sign a veteran who would play in Iowa but could replace Wallstedt or Fleury, if there was an injury or Wallstedt struggles, but that is the worst case scenario.

Filip Gustavsson’s numbers took a dip this season from where they were a year ago. (MHM Photo / Rick Olson)

Best case is that Wallstedt spends the season learning under Fleury, while carrying much of the workload. Although Guerin is always focused on winning, the reality is that next season is the last in which the Wild will be tight to the salary cap because of the Zach Parise and Ryan Suter buyouts, and the smartest thing the franchise could do is play as much of its young talent in order to set itself up for the 2025-26 season, when there should be actual expectations for playoff success.

This doesn’t mean making the playoffs, or celebrating a first-round win. This means the start of what should be a Stanley Cup window. If the youngsters give you more than is expected next season that’s a bonus, but, if this season has proven anything, it’s that patience is going to be a necessity and development is more important than playing veterans whose time is running out.

Fleury knows exactly what’s he has signed up for and that the last act of his Hall of Fame career should be doing everything in his power to make sure Wallstedt can have a career that also includes multiple Stanley Cup rings. Fleury is in the perfect position to be on board with this plan, but it’s not going to happen with Gustavsson on the roster.

This doesn’t mean Gustavsson can’t rebound from a poor season. It just means that rebound needs to come elsewhere.

Judd Zulgad is co-host of the Mackey and Judd podcast and also Judd’s Hockey Show for SKOR North. Judd covered the Vikings from 2005 to 2010 for the Star Tribune before joining SKOR North.

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