Before we dive into this debate, I have to clear something up: I’m not blind. I can see Dustin Wolf’s amazing American Hockey League (AHL) numbers, just like the rest of you. The 20-year-old netminder is off to an incredible start to his professional career, posting a 14-0-2 record with the Calgary Flames’ AHL affiliate, the Stockton Heat. Wolf’s stellar play between the pipes this season has the rookie sensation near the league leaders in goaltending stats and the Heat on top of the Pacific Division.
Just how good has the native of Tustin, California been? Well, the two-time Western Hockey League (WHL) goalie of the year has yet to lose a game in regulation, extending Stockton’s 2021-22 season point streak to 16 games when he starts. Wolf’s AHL goaltending stats are absolutely sparkling: first in wins with 14, second in save percentage with .940 and third in goals-against average (GAA) with 1.84.
With numbers like that, it’s really hard to believe this kid was the Flames’ 214th overall pick in the 2019 NHL Draft. Maybe being drafted near the bottom of the seventh round lit a fire in the belly of the 6-foot puck stopper and put a huge chip on his shoulder in the process. Yes, he’s considered to be small for an NHL goalie, but his athleticism and positioning more than makeup for it.
Has Wolf’s Superb AHL Start Earned him a Shot With the Flames?
Wolf’s dominating performance in the minors has many Flames fans very excited and I’ve heard more than a few of them demand the undersized netminder get the call up to the show as soon as possible. The last goaltender Calgary drafted that actually played more than 40 games with the big club was Trevor Kidd, who was picked 11th overall in the 1990 Draft. It’s safe to say the Flames faithful have waited a long time to see some “organizational talent” succeed in the NHL, but the big question remains – should Wolf be rushed into the NHL, or does he need multiple years of seasoning in the minors?
The 20-year-old would love to suit up for the Flames sooner rather than later because he’s seen first-hand how quickly a young goalie can make the jump to the NHL. Wolf spent three seasons playing for the WHL Everett Silvertips, starting as the backup behind current Philadelphia Flyers starter Carter Hart. He saw his former Silvertips teammate play only 18 games for the Flyers’ AHL affiliate in the 2018-19 season before getting his shot with the big club in Dec. 2018 at the tender age of 20. It’s a career trajectory Wolf knows isn’t probable… but definitely possible (from ‘Wolf forces himself into Flames goalie puzzle’, The Calgary Sun, 02/12/21).
The end goal, obviously, is to get to the NHL as soon as possible. I came into it with Carter Hart for one year and that’s pretty much what happened to him. He came up, played his first game, and ended up being the guy. Every team in the league is different — some have a lot of goalies in their depth chart. Others have not as many. So, I think right now, it’s about focusing on what I’m doing down here and giving the team a chance to win every day. If I’m doing that and finding success, and being a good teammate overall, at some point I’ll get that opportunity.”Dustin Wolf speaking with the Calgary Sun
For every feel-good story about a youngster like Hart defying the odds and making the NHL as a 20-year-old, there’s a flip side. Enter Spencer Knight of the Florida Panthers, another hotshot goalie prospect who turned a lot of heads after making his big league debut just a day after turning 20.
The Panthers’ Spencer Knight Should be a Cautionary Tale for Wolf
Knight stepped directly onto the biggest stage last season after an incredible sophomore year with Boston College, winning his first career NHL start in late April and even taking over the starting job in the Panther’s first-round series against the Tampa Bay Lightning. At the start of the 2021-22 season, there was even some chatter about the native of Darien, Connecticut stealing the number one job away from veteran Florida netminder Sergei Bobrovsky.
However, Knight’s 2021-22 campaign has shown some serious regression, raising doubts that the young puck stopper is truly ready for the big time. Through 13 appearances with the Panthers this season, he’s posted a 6-4-2 record with a .892 SV% and a 3.42 GAA. In his last game against the Ottawa Senators on Dec. 14, the 20-year-old allowed eight goals on 38 shots, by far his worst performance since being called up. Just two days later, he was assigned to the Charlotte Checkers, where he fared no better in his first AHL game, letting in five goals on 32 shots.
Almost every young prospect needs time to develop in the minors, so a stint in the AHL is not an indictment of Knight’s future in the NHL. However, it does provide a cautionary tale for Wolf, who could find himself called up to the Flames sooner rather than later. Earlier this week, backup netminder Dan Vladar entered COVID-19 protocol, meaning one of the Stockton Heat’s two puck stoppers will have to suit up for Calgary if they actually resume play on Dec. 27 against the Edmonton Oilers.
Should Wolf get Called up to Backup Markstrom?
The Flames have two choices on the Heat’s roster to fill in for Vladar’s absence. They can promote Adam Werner, the 24-year-old Swede who has a 3.09 GAA and a .880 SV% in seven games for Stockton, or call up Wolf, who has been absolutely lights out all season. If Calgary truly wants the best option backing up Jacob Markstrom, then this is a no-brainer but if they want Wolf to keep on playing and developing, then maybe he should stay down on the farm.
Another thing to consider is the Flames’ upcoming schedule. Calgary plays back-to-back on Dec. 30 and 31 against the Seattle Kraken and Winnipeg Jets. If the coaching staff is serious about not overworking their number one goaltender, they really have no choice but to give Wolf his NHL debut. And if history tells us anything, starting a 20-year-old can be a risky proposition.
We could see the second coming of a solid NHL starter like Carter Hart, or perhaps the meteoric rise and rapid fall of an unproven quantity like Spencer Knight – who definitely needs more seasoning. While I’m certainly not opposed to calling up Wolf to fill in for Vladar, I feel he needs an extended stay in the AHL before he’s truly ready for the big time.
Greg Tysowski is a former broadcast journalist who chose the exciting life of a stay-at-home dad for over a decade. He’s now a published author, parenting blogger and aspiring sports writer covering the Calgary Flames for The Hockey Writers. Greg is also a regular contributor to the weekly roundtable discussion “Flames Faceoff”, now streaming on YouTube and all podcast outlets.