ST. PAUL — From the moment Alex Stalock entered the NHL a decade ago, almost everyone saw him as a career backup.
He worked tirelessly during his time with the San Jose Sharks, battling back from a career-threatening leg injury early in his career, and continued to grind after accepting a minor league role with the Wild a few years ago.
Eventually, he made way back to the NHL, and this season the 31-year-old South St. Paul, Minn., native finally emerged as the go-to guy in the crease. While usual starter Devan Dubnyk struggled to find his game, Stalock became a stabilizing force.
On Tuesday morning, he was named as a Masterton Trophy nominee by the Twin Cities chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association. Named in honor of the late Minnesota North Stars player Bill Masteron, the trophy is given annually to the NHL player who best exemplifies perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to the sport.
"It's pretty special," Stalock said. "It's almost like a team award. You had to give it to one guy, I guess, that's the tough part about any individual award. You look at where we started the year and what we went through to where we were when the brakes got put on us, it’s kind of like a team that came from a sluggish start, a start that a lot of people questioned, 'How far down can this go?' "
The season was postponed on March 12 because of the coronavirus pandemic, but the NHL and players union recently agreed to restart this season sometime this summer. The Wild squeaked into the 24-team playoff tournament in large part because of Stalock, who already has started a career-high 38 games this season.
While it will likely be an open competition between Stalock, Dubnyk, and Kaapo Kahkonen when the season resumes, it's hard to bet against Stalock at this point.
"I try to be a calming presence that gives them a chance to win games," he said. "And fortunately, more nights than not we scored more goals than the other team and got to put two points away. It was a ton of fun to play that amount of hockey. We loved where we were at at the end of the year (and) hopefully this thing can get back started and pick up here we left off."
Stalock couldn't help but reflect on the journey that has led him to this point. He was almost out of the NHL completely before signing a two-way contract with the Wild in July 2016. He credits former Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher with giving him a second chance.
"He was straight up with me. He said, 'Sometimes we need to take a step back to take two steps forward.' And that's kind of what that season was," Stalock said. "You learn a lot about yourself. I went down and got some good work with the staff there and (goaltending development coach) Freddie Chabot and worked on simplifying some things and gave me a chance to make a Wild team out of training camp."
After playing 50 games for the Iowa Wild of the American Hockey League (AHL) during the 2016-17 season, Stalock earned a spot back in the NHL the following season as a backup to Dubnyk. He's been in the Twin Cities ever since and is more confident than ever as he preps to get back on the ice.
"It’s funny," he said. "It's a position where I joke around sometimes the puck looks like a beach ball and sometimes it looks like it’s the size of a pea. I think confidence goes a long way with this position."
As does perseverance.
While the NHL technically started Phase 2 of its Return to Play Plan, which allows players to reconvene in small groups at team facilities, the Wild will wait a little longer to get players back together at their facility.
Why? There isn't any ice at TRIA Rink right now.
According to a team spokesperson, the ice is scheduled to be installed next week, and the Wild are hoping players will be able to return shortly after that.