Dustin Wolf is officially an NHL goaltender. After winning endlessly in the AHL with the Calgary Wranglers this season, he was called up for the Calgary Flames’ final game to make his first NHL start. As luck wold have it, the Gilroy, California product would play against his “hometown” team—the San Jose Sharks. Wolf grew up just a 30-minute drive away from San Jose, and was a fan of both the Sharks and Evgeni Nabokov. Having a chance to make his NHL debut against the Sharks was surely special.
Wolf steps into the NHL
On top of the magic of playing in his first NHL game, Wolf also showed that he’s more than ready to challenge for more NHL ice time come 2023–24. Depending on the fate of the Wranglers in the Calder Cup playoffs, there might be a few more accolades that Wolf can add to his resume—but individually, he’s virtually done it all in the AHL. There’s a good chance the Wranglers could win the Calder Cup, and there’s a good chance that Wolf could win the Les Cunningham as the AHL MVP.
The two-year AHLer has proved that he really is too good for the league as his numbers has him in an entirely different echelon compared to every other goaltender in the league. Leading the league in every goaltending statistic, his call-up to close out the Flames’ season was most deserved.
It was reported late last night that Wolf would be the starter, and by the morning the Flames had made it official. With the Wranglers
A look at Wolf’s debut
In facing the 29th place Sharks, Wolf wasn’t necessarily fed to the… well, wolves for his debut. That said, the difference in talent between the AHL and NHL is massive and any good goaltending performance—even if the game’s influence on the season outcome is meaningless—is worth applause.
Wolf made his first NHL save came just under four minutes into the game, coming off a Logan Couture shot from 51 feet away.
Unfortunately, the Flames allowed the game’s first goal midway through the first period as Noah Gregor scored by picking up his own rebound after evading Michael Stone on a one-on-one battle. It’s definitely a goal Wolf will wish he could take back without the rebound attached to it.
As the game wore on, Wolf looked more and more comfortable and made some big saves look easy. There wasn’t exactly a lot of shot volume funneled towards Wolf—he faced nine shots in the first, just four in the second, and 11 in the third for a total of 24. His 23 saves clocks him in with a .958 save percentage.
The flow of the game was more controlled by the Flames as they had the bulk of the shots. However, as things have gone for much of the season, the share of high-danger chances between to too teams was closer to even compared to the share of shot attempts.
That wouldn’t matter for Wolf, however, as he was in position for every chance and was technically sound. Every dangerous opportunity by the Sharks just ended with Wolf being in the right spot to fully negate the threat.
Wolf’s on-ice saving
Now, we all know having just one game played leaves a lot of room for opinion and not so much for robust statistical breakdowns, but the eye test showed that Wolf was poised and calm in his crease. He didn’t let the first goal against bother him and maintained his composure. Let’s take a look at Wolf’s on-ice stats at 5v5 as well as all situations from NaturalStatTrick.com.
All situation stats
As mentioned, Wolf’s only goal against came off a rebound chance from in tight, making for a high-danger shot that slipped by him. He was perfect otherwise and stopped every other high-danger shot he faced. For low- and medium-danger shots, he was flawless.
Posting a positive goals saved above expected (GSAx) is a nice way to start any NHL career for a goalie, and makes him the only Flames goalie to be on the positive side of the equation with both Jacob Markstrom and Daniel Vladar having negative GSAx.
Yes, one game at the end of the season isn’t going to give any usable data for analysis, but Wolf isn’t just a player the Flames are integrating into their system. The Flames and their fans are already quite familiar with him, as he’s already played dozens of games out of the Saddledome and has led the Wranglers to victory time and time again.
Moving the AHL club from Stockton to Calgary had major benefits for the organisation but the biggest one was they got to see just how good Wolf really is time and time again.
His debut in the NHL is just a reward for his outstanding season and also a teaser for him to reach the final threshold. He has nothing left to prove at the AHL level and his play in his single game is indicative of his NHL readiness.
A debut to remember
Wolf’s entry into the NHL is a sign of the franchise’s future. He has the potential to be a game-breaking goalie and could very well backstop the Flames to levels of success that many other teams with elite goalies have seen. While it’s a constant talking point to bring up that Wolf was a 2019 seventh-round pick, the better fitting present description for him is that he’s the best goalie in the AHL and arguably the best goaltending prospect in the NHL.
The Flames managed to get Wolf a win to start his career and that’s a great entry to the league. Now he’ll return to the Flames locker room, switch his jersey out, and look to for a deep playoff run with the Wranglers. Onwards from the AHL playoffs, the Flames will have some goaltending decisions to make. Wolf should be seeing plenty of NHL action next season for starters and for many more years to come.
Congratulations on the debut and the win, Wolf!
Photo from @NHL on Twitter.