With the Calgary Flames 2022–23 season ending without playoff hockey, now is the time to look to the future. The future of the Flames starts and ends with Dustin Wolf. The 21-year-old goaltender is arguably the best goalie in the entire world not in the NHL, and represents the future of the Flames crease.
Coming off winning the Goaltender of the Year in the AHL in his rookie season, Wolf has followed that up with an even better season this year and became the first goalie in AHL history to win the award in back-to-back seasons. He finished the season with an absurd 42–10–2 record along with a .932 save percentage. His 42 wins were the most by an under 25 goalie in 18 years.
All signs point to Wolf being a high-end starter in the NHL, however it’s worth looking into just how often AHL success translates to NHL success for goalies. Let’s take a look at the history of goaltenders going from the AHL to the NHL, and where they are now.
Most NHL starters come from the AHL
The AHL is the biggest feeding pool for NHL goaltenders in the world. Nearly every single starter in the league right now has played a handful of games in the AHL before making the jump to the NHL. It’s incredibly rare for a goalie to jump directly to the NHL after being drafted.
Of the 32 starters in the NHL this season, only three never played in the AHL. Both Ilya Sorokin and Sergei Bobrovsky came over from playing pro hockey in the KHL and went straight to the NHL, while Karel Vejmelka came over from the Czech Extraliga. The remaining 29 starters spent at least some time the AHL.
If we ignore starter status and instead look at the overall top 32 goalies for wins this season, 21 played at least 50 games in the AHL. Among the top 10 goalies for wins this season, five have at least 50 games played in the AHL. It’s quite clear that in today’s NHL, the most likely path to success as a goaltender is to come up through the AHL.
Previous AHL Goaltender of the Year winners
After the back-to-back AHL Goaltender of the Year accomplishment, it’s worth looking at how often the winner of that award goes onto have NHL success. I’ll take a look at the previous 9 winners of the award before Wolf.
|Season||Winner||Age in Winning Season||Current Status|
|2022-23||Dustin Wolf||21||AHL Starter|
|2021–22||Dustin Wolf||20||AHL Starter|
|2020–21||Logan Thompson||23||NHL Starter|
|2019–20||Kaapo Kahkonen||23||NHL Backup|
|2018–19||Alex Nedeljkovic||22||NHL Backup|
|2017–18||Garret Sparks||24||AHL Backup|
|2016–17||Troy Grosenick||27||AHL Backup|
|2014–15||Matt Murray||20||NHL Backup|
|2013–14||Jake Allen||23||NHL Starter|
Overall not the most encouraging list, although award winners are hardly the most accurate predictor of future success. That said, the correlation between winning the AHL’s goaltender of the year award and at least playing the in the NHL is pretty strong. Of the previous nine winners, all nine spent at least some time in the NHL with five of them still there.
Players like Jake Allen, Matt Murray, Alex Nedeljkovic, Kaapo Kahkonen and Logan Thompson won the award around the same age as Wolf and have gone on to achieve success at the NHL level. In particular Thompson won just two seasons ago and is currently the starter for the top Pacific Division seed in the Vegas Golden Knights. Of the seven winners who were under the age of 25, Niklas Svedberg and Garret Sparks are the only two who failed to stick around in the NHL.
The only other goalie as young as Wolf to win the award in the past 10 years is Murray, who of course has won two Stanley Cups since. He’s struggled recently, however there was a few years after making the jump that he was one of the better goalies in the NHL.
As mentioned, awards aren’t exactly the best indicator of success, however it’s clear that more often than not the winner of the AHL goaltender of the year goes on to have success in the NHL to varying degrees. This is a great sign for Wolf considering his counting stats are better than pretty much every name on this list, and he’s the first goalie in AHL history to win the award in back to back years.
Wolf’s historic numbers compared to other young goalies
We all know how good Wolf has been, but how do his numbers stack up against other top goalies in the AHL over the last 10 years? And where are those goalies now? Let’s take a look at the best seasons by AHL goaltenders 24 and under in the past decade in terms of goals saved above average (GSAA). Numbers are courtesy of AHLtracker.com.
So how has the career trajectory looked for these players after having great success in the AHL? Let’s take a look. The table below is sorted by GSAA.
|2022–23||Dustin Wolf||21||47.34||AHL Starter|
|2017–18||Garret Sparks||24||34.83||AHL Backup|
|2020–21||Logan Thompson||23||32.03||NHL Starter|
|2021–22||Dustin Wolf||20||30.75||AHL Starter|
|2014–15||Matt Murray||20||28.52||NHL Backup|
|2016–17||Anton Forsberg||23||27.39||NHL Backup|
|2013–14||Jake Allen||23||26.03||NHL Starter|
|2019–20||Connor Ingram||22||24.82||NHL Backup|
|2016–17||Tristan Jarry||21||22.60||NHL Starter|
|2017–18||Thatcher Demko||21||22.13||NHL Starter|
Dustin Wolf finished 2022–23 with the highest GSAA total from the past 10 years in the AHL. His 47.34 GSAA is over 12 GSAA above the second name on this list in Sparks. You’ll also recognize most of these names from the list of previous AHL goaltender of the year award winners too.
Overall not a bad list. Every single player on his list went on to play NHL games, with most of them currently still in the NHL. The only name on the list who isn’t in the NHL right now, other than Wolf of course, is Sparks. Every other player is currently an NHL goalie.
Tristan Jarry, Thatcher Demko, Allen, and Thompson are all currently starters in the NHL and have had solid results at the NHL level. Connor Ingram, Anton Forsberg, and Murray are currently NHL backups or in 1A/1B situations.
All said, it’s clear when you put up a strong GSAA in the AHL at a young age, you’re bound to be an NHL goaltender one way or another. If you’re the Flames, you hope Wolf matches the Thompson/Demko/Jarry end of the spectrum and becomes a full-time NHL starter. Given he’s only been in the league for two seasons and currently holds two of the top four seasons from the past decade, I’d say the outlook is very good.
A bright future for Wolf
Considering how historic Wolf’s numbers are even to fellow top AHL goaltenders, there’s a very good chance his success translates to the NHL. Among previous AHL goaltender of the year winners, Wolf’s numbers are by far the best which is a great sign for his future considering most winners go on to play in the NHL.
He’s also now coming off arguably the best under 25 season by an AHL goaltender in over 15 years. When compared to previous GSAA leaders, Wolf’s prospects of becoming an NHL starter are looking very good right now.
Photo from @CalgaryWranglers on Twitter.