Goalies are widely considered to be the toughest players to evaluate, draft, and develop. Nearly every team in the league has been burned by a highly touted goalie prospect taken early that turns into a potential episode of Whatever Happened To?, and for every one of those, there is another late-round pick or undrafted netminder who turns into the best goaltender in the league (see Cam Talbot, Ed Belfour, Sergei Bobrovsky, and co.)
With the fourth last pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, the Calgary Flames took Dustin Wolf from the WHL’s Everett Silvertips, where he was the second-best goalie in the entire league. The big knock on him however was his size, standing just 5’11” at the time of drafting, which is small for goalies. That said, nobody doubted his athleticism or talent at the position, but the general rule of thumb around goaltending has always been that larger goalies can just be in position and let shots hit them as opposed to smaller goalies who have to move more to be in position for a shot.
This pick at the time looked like a long-shot, but Wolf has developed into one of the team’s top prospects, and easily one of the best goaltenders in the AHL this season. He has since been called up to the Flames for the last three games of the season, and it seems unlikely he features in either of the Stockton Heat’s final two games given they too have won their division. With this in mind, we can pretty comfortably look at his numbers in the AHL this season as a combined body of work and wow what a picture they paint.
Breaking down Wolf’s rookie season
Wolf has not only been one of the best goalies in the AHL this season, but is having a historically excellent rookie season. Here is how he has done this season:
|Dustin Wolf||2021–22||46 (3rd)||2.33 (9th)||0.924 (3rd)||0|
Aside from not having a single shutout this season, Wolf has had a superb season. Of the 20 netminders who have played the most this season, only four have save percentages above 0.920, with Wolf leading the way. His save percentage is particularly impressive and puts him behind 32-year-old Troy Grosenick and 25-year-old Joey Daccord (who has played three seasons in the AHL). Both have each played a handful of NHL games as well, while Wolf is still waiting to hit NHL ice.
Of the 14 rookie netminders who played at least 10 games this year, here is how Wolf stacked up:
|Dustin Wolf||2021-22||46 (2nd)||2.33 (1st)||0.924 (1st)||0|
Absolutely astounding to think the seventh-round pick put up numbers like this. The only rookie netminder to play more games than Wolf was Justus Annunen, who also featured in two games for the Colorado Avalanche but had substantially worse numbers in that time than the Heat’s starter. Wolf has absolutely blown away any expectations that the Flames could have had of him going into this season.
How Wolf stacks up compared to goalies in the last decade
While he has had a fantastic rookie campaign in his own right, Wolf’s numbers put him in the conversation as one of the best rookie seasons in the past decade. Since 2011–12, only eight rookie goalies have had a better save percentage than he in their first season. Here’s who is in that category:
This is a very impressive group to be part of. All eight have played NHL games in their careers, five of whom developed into regulars in the league to this point. Thompson is trending towards becoming an NHL netminder, playing in 16 games for the Vegas Golden Knights and boasting a 0.917 save percentage in that time.
The two exceptions to the rule are Svedberg, who is now playing in Sweden after a very short stint in the NHL, and Ortio who played briefly for the Flames but is now in the KHL. Both European netminders never really seemed to have it at the NHL level and ended up back there.
Those two aside, Wolf putting up numbers similar to goalies like Andersen in similar numbers of starts is incredibly impressive. What is even more impressive is the fact that he has done so without a single shutout to boost his numbers. This speaks to his consistency night-in and night-out to allow very few goals against.
What’s next for Wolf?
Wolf almost certainly deserves an NHL look in one of the Flames’ final three games of the season. He has more than earned that based on his very impressive body of work. However, one game won’t give much of an impression, even if it is a great game; the Flames will undoubtedly want to see more before making any personnel decisions at the NHL level.
However, it’s hard to imagine Wolf regressing greatly even beyond this year. He will likely continue to knock on the door to Calgary until the Flames give him a real look at this level. That’s when they will have a big choice to make on the future of Daniel Vladar, the current backup netminder. With Jacob Markstrom holding a full no-movement clause (NMC), the Flames will have him in their crease until the end of the 2025–26 season.
With no plans for extra cap room, the Flames likely won’t be able to carry three goalies with their NHL team next season. At this rate, they will likely be forced into making a decision on their crease next season, and for GM Brad Treliving, the hope is that Vladar can be flipped for a pretty penny when the time is right.
This, however, is a very good problem for the Flames to have. They have an expected Vezina Trophy finalist in Markstom as their starter, one of the top backup goalies in the league in Vladar behind him, one of the best goalies in the AHL in Wolf, and one of the best goalies in the USHL in Arseni Sergeev in their pipeline. For a team that couldn’t find a goaltender to save their life for nearly a decade, the Flames’ crease looks secure for the foreseeable future.