Former Bulldog Alex Stalock a net gain for Wild organization
DES MOINES — Alex Stalock’s days in the NHL may be numbered.
But the former Minnesota Duluth goaltender once again has a purpose in hockey.
After spending three seasons in the NHL as the San Jose Sharks backup goaltender, the 29-year-old Stalock finds himself back in the minor leagues playing for the Minnesota Wild’s top American Hockey League affiliate, the Iowa Wild.
Stalock was signed by the Wild organization over the summer to a one-year, two-way deal that pays him $650,000 in the NHL and $300,000 in the AHL. Both figures are well below the reported $1.6 million he averaged the previous two seasons with the Sharks.
Stalock is no longer making millions, but he is seeing minutes and more of them on a consistent basis than he ever did as a backup in San Jose.
“It’s fun, you’re up there and you get to experience the world-class hockey, the top-end players and watch them every night and play against them. At the same time, you work hard your whole life and you get to a point where you work so hard and you’re not playing. It’s kind of a tough spot to be in,” Stalock said in mid-November, describing his NHL experience during an interview after a morning skate at Wells Fargo Arena.
“It gets old after a while. You want to play. You’re trying everything you can in practice. Then you go in one night, and say you don’t have your stuff, then you go back to where you were. It’s a tough spot. I was lucky enough to find a spot here and it’s a great spot to be. They take care of you great.”
Stalock played junior hockey in Iowa with the Cedar Rapids Roughriders for two seasons before backstopping the Bulldogs for three seasons from 2006-09. He joined the Iowa Wild late in the AHL preseason after being one of the last players the Minnesota Wild sent down to the minors. He played in five of Iowa’s first six games, then just once in nine games between Oct. 28 and Nov. 16 because of a sinus infection.
In those first six games, Stalock posted an .865 save percentage and 4.46 goals-against average as Iowa went 1-5 in his six starts. Stalock’s health has since improved and he resumed his role as the team’s No. 1 goalie.
Stalock started five of Iowa’s last six games going into this weekend, posting a .953 save percentage and 1.38 GAA to lead Iowa to four wins in those five starts.
“I spent three years (in the NHL) where you are playing once or twice a month,” said Stalock, who in 62 NHL games with San Jose posted a .911 save percentage and 2.38 GAA with four shutouts. “You want to play as much as you can in a month. Every goalie should be wired that way to play as much as possible. It’s a fun time to be able to go in every night and win games. That’s the ultimate goal, to win games and give this team a chance to win every night.”
Leading a turnaround
The Wild organization brought in Stalock for a number of reasons. First off, it wanted a veteran goaltender with NHL experience just down the road in Des Moines should something happen to either Devan Dubnyk or Darcy Kuemper.
Second, the Wild wanted a strong No. 1 goaltender in Iowa who could not only log a lot of minutes in net, but help lead a fledgling franchise that has known nothing but losing since moving from Houston to Des Moines in 2013.
In its first three seasons, Iowa has finished last in its division and have finished with the AHL’s worst record the past two seasons. Iowa’s high point, so far, is its inaugural season when it finished 27-36-7, good for 28th out of 30 AHL teams.
“What the goal is here in Iowa is to turn it around,” Stalock said. “The first few years they’ve had here haven’t been great. We brought in veteran guys and it’s up to us to lead the way and show the young guys how to compete and what it takes to be successful in this league.”
In addition to the South St. Paul native, the Iowa Wild also brought in 30-year-old veteran AHL center Patrick Cannone, who played collegiately at Miami (Ohio), and 28-year-old defenseman Victor Bartley (out for the season with a torn tricep), who like Stalock is back in the minors after a couple seasons with the NHL’s Nashville Predators and Montreal Canadiens.
The Wild organization also hired a proven winner in coach Derek Lalonde, who in addition to titles has a strong history at the developmental level.
Lalonde was an NCAA assistant coach for eight seasons, helping Ferris State win a Central Collegiate Hockey Association title and Denver capture two WCHA crowns. As head coach, he led the Green Bay Gamblers to a United States Hockey League title at the junior level.
Lalonde spent the past two seasons in the East Coast Hockey League as head coach of the Toledo Walleye. Lalonde led the Detroit Red Wings’ minor-league affiliate to an ECHL-record 58-point turnaround in his first season and a 97-35-12 mark over two years.
While most NHL affiliates are heavily stocked with young talent, they still need veterans as mentors and to lead by example on and off the ice. It also helps to have a few players with NHL experience, like Stalock, Lalonde said.
“The biggest thing that came up when our management group when discussing Alex was his character,” said Lalonde, who has the Iowa Wild (9-10) sixth in the AHL Central Division going into the weekend. “Obviously a proven winner, we’re trying to turn a culture around down here. He’s a guy that’s won, but he’s first and foremost a good human.
“We brought him in here to play a lot of games. We brought him in here to be a character type individual and just let some of our young guys know what it’s like to be a pro.”
Lalonde said returning to the AHL was a bit of an adjustment at first for Stalock. It had been a few years since Stalock had played back-to-back nights or even multiple times in a single week. Days following his 2011 NHL debut with San Jose, while back in the AHL for one game, Stalock had the peroneal nerve in his lower leg severed from an opponent’s skate blade. That kept him out of hockey for nearly a year.
Another aspect Stalock needed to get used to was the mistakes young defensemen make. He no longer has high-end NHL defensemen in front of him.
Then there was his health. That not only hurt Stalock’s ability to succeed on the ice, but it hurt the team not having that veteran leader in the locker room every day, Lalonde said.
Since Stalock returned, Lalonde said his No. 1 goalie has set a good example for his young teammates, such as being one of the last players off the ice at the morning skate before Iowa’s Nov. 18 home game against Chicago.
“He wants to get a rhythm going,” Lalonde said. “As great as it’s been — his first path, if you will, where he made it to the National Hockey League and spent a number of years in the National Hockey League — he simply hasn’t played a lot. Being an NHL backup and getting games is not a bad living, he would admit that, but it’s hard.
“He’s used to playing a lot of hockey, and the last few years he simply hasn’t played. I think he wants to play a lot and get into a rhythm.”
After spending the last seven years on the east and west coasts playing for the AHL’s Worcester (Mass.) Sharks and the San Jose Sharks, Stalock said it’s good for him, his wife, Felicia, and their 1 1/2-year-old son, Simon, to be close to home. Felicia also is from South St. Paul.
“Getting a chance here with Minnesota was special this summer,” Stalock said. “To stay close to home was huge. Playing on the east coast and west coast the past 6-7 years, it has been a distance to travel every year. Now having a young family, it changes perspective. You want to be around family as much as you can. To get a chance here was awesome.”
While happy to be home, it doesn’t take a mind reader to know Stalock wants to continue playing hockey well beyond this season. He said he doesn’t have a post-hockey career plan yet, but he did take a college class over the summer as he works toward finishing the communications degree he started at UMD.
Stalock will be a free agent again next summer as will Kuemper — Dubnyk is signed through 2021 — so he may remain with the Wild or go elsewhere. For now, Stalock is taking his hockey career day-to-day and happy to have a purpose again on and off the ice.
“Pro hockey prepares you,” Stalock said. “I’ve been lucky enough I’ve had seven years where I’ve seen a lot of different situations. You work hard. You play well. You never know what could happen. I have a situation here to play games and play for a good team. I’m excited. I’m feeling healthy and feeling good again off the ice.”