- Craig Custance
DETROIT -- He was one of the best stories of the shortened regular season. Anaheim Ducks goalie Viktor Fasth came over from Sweden as an unknown to most hockey fans, but his anonymity didn't last long. When you earn wins in eight of your first nine NHL games, recognition comes quickly.
Fasth finished the regular season 15-6-2 with a 2.18 goals-against average and .921 save percentage, earning a two-year contract extension just nine games into his NHL career at age 30. His four shutouts this season were just one off the NHL leaders, and he did it in just 23 starts. He was as big a reason as any the Ducks finished with the second-best record in the Western Conference.
He was also nearly a Detroit Red Wing, the team Fasth's Ducks are trying to eliminate in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Two years ago, he went 6-1 in the World Championships for Sweden, finishing with a 1.71 goals-against average. He was the tournament MVP. That year, he caught the eye of the Red Wings, who were looking for depth in goal behind Jimmy Howard.
They nearly landed Fasth.
"Yeah, it was real close," Fasth said when we chatted before Game 2 in Anaheim. "They showed big interest, but at the time my fiancé was pregnant. We didn't feel like it was a good time for us to leave the country, and we wanted to stay home and give it another year. It was a really tough decision back then."
When a player has waited so long for a shot to play in the NHL, he never knows how many chances he'll get to try again. But Fasth's priority at the time was keeping his family close to home, as was developing his game further in Europe.
"That extra year back in Sweden helped me, too. [It helped me] develop my game even more," Fasth said. "It was a tough decision, but things came out well anyway. I'm real glad to be here and be in this organization."
One year later, Fasth felt he was ready to make the move to the NHL, and the Ducks aggressively pursued him. Anaheim GM Bob Murray was willing to offer a one-way contract, showing the commitment and opportunity Fasth wanted.
"That was the big thing for me, the team that I came to really, really wanted me to be here and gave me the chance," he said. "That was the thing that made me decide."
Fasth used the big stage of the World Championships to prove to the Ducks and others he was worth the risk and capable of playing against the best players in the world. The World Championships began their preliminary round on Friday, and while the eyes of most NHL fans are on the Stanley Cup playoffs, scouts and GMs from NHL teams are making the trip to Finland and Sweden to see if they can uncover a Fasth or a Damien Brunner -- the impressive Red Wings forward who Detroit lured from Switzerland as a free agent last summer.
The success of both European free agents might help the cause, although one NHL team executive said this year's free agent class in the tournament doesn't have a high-end talent like Brunner or Fasth.
"There are a couple guys who we have interest in, but they do not have the profile as those guys last year," he said.
And not every European standout goalie turns into Fasth.
"Those guys always have interest [in them] and will continue to do so," the NHL team executive added. "Keep in mind, for every Fasth, there is a number that haven't worked out."
There's also the challenge in scouting a player in the World Championships and trying to project his NHL success. One Eastern Conference scout, who was heading to the tournament this week to scout potential free agents, said the talent gap between the countries sometimes makes it hard to get a read on a player. When a team like Russia beats its opponents by a combined score of 10-1 as it did with wins over Latvia and Germany over the weekend, it makes it hard on scouts.
"Maybe there's a Swiss player you like and they play Denmark and the stay-at-home defenseman is saying, 'This is my chance' and he's Bobby Orr," said the scout. "That's the problem...you spend a great deal of time and you see a great deal of games -- two or three games each day. But the number of quality games is few."
But still, he headed there with a list of up to a dozen names to keep an eye on for his team.
"We have a couple goalies on our list," he said.
One of those goalies might be Finland's Antti Raanta. He made 36 saves in a shutout win over Slovakia on Saturday.
The 23-year-old is having a great spring and won the Jari Kurri Trophy for his performance in Finland's SM-liiga playoffs. In 45 games with Porin Assat, Raanta registered a 1.85 goals-against average and .943 save percentage. Those numbers improved in the playoffs, during which he had four shutouts.
He's not your prototypical 6-foot-4 Finnish goalie, but he is showing he's more than capable at 6-feet and will draw interest from NHL teams as a free agent.
Perhaps Fasth's success this season helped pave the way for a team to take a shot on the next European goalie standout in the worlds.
"I don't know about that," Fasth said. "I'm glad the Ducks gave me this chance to come here -- and play as late as I did, too. It's not a chance you get every day. I'm really glad to be here. Or course, the national team was a great thing for me, too. It's a big honor for me as a Swedish hockey player to get the opportunity to represent the national team. For European players, that's the best way to show what they're capable of. That's a big opportunity."
Craig Custance writes that Viktor Fasth's path from Sweden to the NHL might pave the way for more Europeans free agents.