It's never easy replacing a franchise goaltender, especially one that put up some of the best major junior numbers on record. But Dustin Wolf has taken over where current Philadelphia Flyers goalie Carter Hart left off with the Western Hockey League's Everett Silvertips, and is attempting to prove the doubters wrong along the way.
In his first full season as a starter, the 18-year-old Wolf led the WHL in wins, goals-against average and save percentage while playing in 61-of-68 games. He finished as runner up to 20-year-old Ian Scott as the league's goalie of the year in 2018-19.
This season, the Calgary Flames prospect has started strong yet again, going 10-4-0 with a 2.14 GAA and .936 save percentage while being named Canadian Hockey League goalie of the month for October, helping the Silvertips to the No. 4 ranking in the 60-team CHL.
"I know I can stop a puck and I thought we had a really good team last year that helped me out a lot. Exceeded my expectations a bit with the numbers," said Wolf, who appeared in 20 games in 2017-18 as Hart's backup.
"Anybody can be a good goalie but you (have to) replicate it every night. You got to do your job out there, make sure you keep your team in big games, one-goal games."
Wolf's rookie season behind Hart — the 2017-18 CHL goalie of the year and Canada's starter en route to gold at the 2018 world junior championship — was a learning experience that he says helped shape him into the player he is today.
It was the first time Wolf served as a backup, allowing him to see the game from a different view.
"Pretty interesting to be able to step back and not be the guy to be leaned on every night. You can survey a bit and see who could be the next NHL goaltender," said Wolf.
"It was more the visual, watching what (Hart) does on the ice and how he prepared himself for each game, after practice all the extra work he put in. (He's) a contact I can always go to."
Wolf went 41-15-4 with a 1.69 GAA and .936 save percentage last season, yet the numbers were overlooked come draft time, leaving the California native with a sense of disappointment.
Wolf didn't think he'd have to hear 213 names — including 21 other goaltenders — called ahead of him at the 2019 NHL draft, but such was the case as he wound up as the fourth-last player taken at Vancouver's Rogers Arena. He wasn't even sure if he would be picked until the Flames finally selected him.
"I definitely didn't expect to wait to the seventh round. Pretty crazy day," said Wolf. "It wasn't the greatest experience up until the 214th selection, but it's an experience I'll remember. Still pretty amazing when you hear your name called."
Wolf, who is listed at six feet and 165 pounds, feels his lack of size is a big reason why he was a late pick. What he lacks in size though, he says he makes up for with athleticism and his ability to track a puck.
"If I can see the puck, I can stop it," said Wolf.
Wolf was introduced to hockey at an early age while living in San Jose. His parents were season ticket holders for the Sharks, making it easy for him to become a fan of the game. At age 10 his family relocated to the Los Angeles area, giving him a chance to see the Kings win two Stanley Cups while also growing a fondness for goalie Jonathan Quick.
Wolf, who was named 2019 CHL scholastic player of the year for his academic work, had to eventually decide if he would stay in the U.S. and go the NCAA route or play major junior in the WHL. He chose to join the Silvertips for the 2017-18 season after meeting with Everett staff, believing in the opportunity that presented itself.
"Pretty unique situation where I could come in for one year and play behind Carter Hart, learn the ropes, get my feet wet. Then be able to take the reins and do what I know how to do. It was a tough decision but definitely one I was happy to make."
Wolf is one of three goaltenders on the Americans' radar for the world juniors beginning on Boxing Day and believes he has a pretty strong chance of representing his country in the Czech Republic. He'll be fighting against Isaiah Saville (Nebraska-Omaha, NCAA) and Spencer Knight (Boston College, NCAA), who were both taken ahead of him at the draft.
Wolf has yet to sign an entry-level contract with Calgary, but another strong season could land ink to paper especially if he can compete well with Knight, who was taken 13th overall by the Florida Panthers.
The red-headed netminder is 64-25-4 with a 1.87 GAA and .934 save percentage in 95 career games with the Silvertips.
"I want to win a lot of hockey games and give our team a chance every night," said Wolf. "I want to be the best out there, just like everyone else. Hopefully I can continue."
This report was first published by The Canadian Press on Nov. 14, 2019.
Kyle Cicerella, The Canadian Press