There are many Calgary Flames fans who probably wince over having a feeling of excitement when they hear the phrase “goalie of the future”. During the tail end of Miikka Kipprusoff’s career in a Flames jersey, management was working at finding the next replacement. That has yet to happen as the team has had 17 different goalies play a game in just eight seasons since. Names like Leland Irving, Jon Gillies, Mason MacDonald, and Tyler Parsons have all been labeled top goalie prospects but haven’t been able to find the results even at the minor league level.
In 2019, Calgary picked California native Dustin Wolf with the fourth-to-last pick in the draft. The goaltender is now entering his fourth season in the Western Hockey League with the Everett Silvertips that is set to begin March 20th. Due to the ongoing pandemic, Canadian Hockey League players under the age of 20 were allowed to forgo the CHL/NHL agreement and play in the American Hockey League if their respective leagues had yet to start.
Wolf hasn’t played much hockey since the world came to a screeching halt nearly one year ago except in mop-up duty for Spencer Knight and a blowout win with Team USA at the 2021 World Junior Tournament. He was off to a rough start in the AHL after less than 30 minutes, but he was given the reins in two more games and looked more like the goalie Flames management hopes he can be.
A Rude Awakening to Pro Hockey
Wolf was given the start in the Heat’s first game of the season and it went uncharacteristically bad for the 19-year-old. He was pulled after just 28 minutes of action after letting in five goals on 12 shots. Garret Sparks would take over in the crease and the Heat would go on to lose their opening game 7-1. Sporting a 0.545 save percentage (SV%) after he was pulled was some cause for concern early on as he has only posted an SV% below 800 just three times in 127 WHL games.
The game started in the Heat’s favor but the Marlies were able to score on their first shot of the game. Off a turnover, a shot came through a bit of screen of two players that found the net far side. The second goal came from a point shot that was tipped in front in the slot to elude Wolf. During the second period Marlies forward Tyler Gaudet created a turnover in the zone and fired one short side while short-handed, one that Wolf probably wants back.
The fourth and fifth goals followed just four minutes later on a scrum in front of the net and a shot from the top left circle. Head coach Cail MacLean seemed to give the rookie goaltender a longer leash in the blowout as the league is more so about player development than winning. Finally, after the fifth red light for the Marlies, there was a change and Wolf spent the rest of the night watching from the bench.
2 Fantastic Bounceback Games
After watching Sparks play a full 60 minutes the next night, Wolf was given the start in the third game of the season. For the second straight start, he let in the first shot of the game just 1:28 in. After the goal he settled in and looked much more comfortable in an AHL crease, looking as good as he has been in the WHL. He stopped 36 of 38 shots including some ten-bell saves on route to helping the Heat earn their first victory of the season.
“Same preparation as any other game, I don’t think anything changed in that regard. I think I got a couple of extra bounces though not like a couple of nights ago. I was able to feel some pucks and get myself into the game, just kind of roll with it and get the first win” Wolf said post-game after collecting his first pro win.
In Wolf’s final game with the Heat, he was fantastic once again as he stopped 26 of 27 shots he faced including 15 in the final frame. The Heat would go on to give the Marlies some payback as they won the game 8-1. The only goal that got past him was on a point shot from Timothy Liljegren that got through heavy traffic in front.
WHL Season Resumes
After a quick week of pro hockey, Wolf has headed back to Everett this past week for the abbreviated WHL season. He will be looking to solidify his name in the records books in SV%, goals-against average (GAA), and shutouts (SO). Among goalies who’ve played 100 WHL games, Wolf is first, second, and fifth in SV%, GAA, and shutouts respectively. In a shortened season the Silvertips’ puck-stopper will be in tough for the seven shutouts needed to become the new record holder, but he has a very good shot to have the best career GAA and SV%.
Wolf turns 20 in April and will still be eligible for another season in the WHL but it is most likely that he will be a full-time Heat teammate by next season. The AHL will be best for Wolf’s development next season and it is likely he even gets the starting gig.
Can He Be the Goalie of the Future?
You don’t have to look far for some comparables to Wolf, both good and bad. Wolf started his career as the backup to now Philadelphia Flyers goalie Carter Hart who is right beside his past teammate in the WHL record books in every category. Both had successful junior careers and now Hart has established himself in the NHL.
On the flip side of that coin is also Flames draft pick and former Silvertip Leland Irving. He too is top five in SV%, GAA, and SO all-time in the WHL but could never translate his abilities to the NHL. Irving was able to post a 0.913 SV% in his first season in the AHL but never did reach that mark again. He was able to get into 13 NHL games posting a 0.902 SV% and three wins but has played in Europe mostly since 2013.
The signing of Jacob Markstrom to a six-year contract has given the Flames some time to see what they have in Wolf. Unlike Hart’s fast-track to the NHL, Wolf will probably see a couple of seasons in the AHL before even a sniff of the big league. It would not be a high expectation to see Wolf backing up Markstrom by the 2023-24 season full time and moving into a 1A, 1B type situation if he’s capable.
Nearing the end of the Kipprusoff era and since then, Flames fans have been continuously let down by the hype around the “goalie of the future”. Wolf isn’t a sure bet just yet, but he has looked very good since the team called his name on the draft floor.