Dustin Wolf has chance to be a Flames outlier: A homegrown starting goalie

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Trevor Kidd and Mike Vernon: That is the sum total list of NHL starting goalies the Calgary Flames have ever drafted and developed as an organization.

Vernon won the Cup in 1989 and Kidd will be forever immortalized as the guy who was picked ahead of Martin Brodeur.

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It has been a long cold streak of picking puckstoppers. Whether due to bad fortune or a lack of competence, whatever the cause, the Flames will be looking to finally snap the drought with Dustin Wolf.

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Chosen fourth last in the 2019 draft due to his relatively small stature (standing 6-foot-0), Wolf went on to be named the WHL goalie of the year twice and the best goaltender in the CHL during his junior career.

His time in the AHL was no different, where Wolf has already collected an entire shelf of individual awards, including: One all-rookie team appearance, two first-team all-star appearances, two Aldege “Baz” Bastien trophies (best goalie in the league), the Less Cunningham award (most valuable player in the league), the Harry “Hap” Holmes award (lowest GAA), and President’s award (outstanding accomplishment).

Over three seasons in the AHL, Wolf has placed fourth, first and third in league save percentage, respectively. Not to mention three straight wins in the NHL currently with the 6-5 decision over Arizona on Sunday night.

It’s safe to say no Flames goaltending prospect ever had a better pedigree.

Wolf is, by far, the most decorated hopeful in Calgary’s organization currently. Nevertheless, the organization’s long history of failed goalie picks and the player’s less-than-ideal stature looms over the entire endeavour.

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No doubt Wolf’s efforts in the NHL will anxiously be monitored during his pending internship, but the rush to judgment should be tempered and replaced by a long and patient development period.

Goaltender is the hardest position in hockey to both assess and predict. Puckstoppers are highly dependent on the team in front of them. The amount and quality of shots can impact save percentage and win rates.

More challenging, however, is the very small range between great and terrible for puckstopping in the NHL.

Imagine, for instance, taking a test in school, with a steep grading curve between 93% (A+) and 87% (F). These are some of the reasons why even an established veteran like Jacob Markstrom can see his season-to-season save percentage vary from outstanding (.922 SV% in 2021-22) to bad (.892 SV% in 2022-23).

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Goaltenders also tend to be the most challenging players to develop. The cost of a mistake in net is very high and it’s not like a coach can hide a goalie on the fourth line or the third pairing.

As a result, it’s difficult for young, unproven goalies to be trusted by NHL coaches. They usually aren’t allowed to play through their mistakes.

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Instead, young puckstoppers typically have to put together long stretches of above-average play to stick in the league and only will become the starter by outplaying an incumbent.

All of these factors are especially relevant whenever a team is competitive. In those circumstances, a club rarely has the luxury of running with a young netminder and hoping he’ll find his way while they battle for a playoff spot or post-season wins.

Taken altogether, it’s no wonder most goalies don’t tend to become NHL starters until their mid-to-late 20’s.

Dustin Wolf
Calgary Flames Dustin Wolf during warm up before taking on the Arizona Coyotes. Photo by Darren Makowichuk /Postmedia

Again, Markstrom is an interesting case study. The club’s current starter was picked in the second round in the 2008 draft, but didn’t play more than 35 games in a season until 2017. Long internships are the rule rather than the exception in the crease.

Trust and a large sample size of games is what you need to effectively evaluate a young puckstopper, neither of which they are usually afforded.

The Flames are also rarely in a position to grant a goalie prospect either of these things. They also rarely have a prospect in the system who is worth the effort.

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Wolf’s resume suggests he could be a competent NHL starter, if not a star. Being shorter will tempt both fans and management to rush to judgment should he not immediately excel in the show, but this should be resisted.

As the saying goes, small players have to prove they can play, big players have to prove they can’t. This truism is a bias that should be resisted, at least in situations where the smaller player has been nothing but exceptional at every other level he has played.

Calgary is about to embark on a rebuild. If it can be patient, the organization may be able to time their return to competitiveness just as Wolf blossoms into a starter.

The Flames never have had a better opportunity to break their goalie prospect curse.

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