Dustin Wolf

The Calgary Flames have a subpar goalie tandem with a 21-year-old brick wall in the AHL. Jacob Stoller looks at if the Flames should call up Dustin Wolf.

The Calgary Flames are in desperate need of a spark.

They sit just outside a wild-card spot as the Colorado Avalanche and Minnesota Wild are tied with them in points with games in hand. Unsurprisingly, GM Brad Treliving is reportedly seeking upgrades. But taking a swing at a Jakob Chychrun or buying low on a Brock Boeser won’t fix their biggest weakness — goaltending.

It’s funny because after all the off-season roster surgery — with Matthew Tkachuk and Johnny Gaudreau departing and Jonathan Huberdeau, MacKenzie Weegar and Nazem Kadri arriving — goaltending appeared to be Calgary’s most stable position.

However, who could foresee Jacob Markstrom declining like this? After posting a .922 save percentage in 63 games last year, the 33-year-old starter has posted a .891 save percentage in 36 contests — identical to Calgary’s 26th-ranked team save percentage. Backup Dan Vladar took over the starter’s job at times this season and won 11 of 18 starts, but he’s only had a save percentage above .900 in one of his past five games.

Meanwhile, Dustin Wolf — the organization’s top goalie prospect — is tearing up the AHL. 

Wolf, 21, boasts a 28-6-1 record and a .931 save percentage with the Calgary Wranglers this season. The 2019 seventh-round pick has been one of the AHL’s best goaltenders since turning pro at the start of last season, with a .926 save percentage over that span to show for it.

Granted, the AHL save percentage only tells us so much when sizing up a goalie’s output. So let’s look at his goals saved above average (GSAA).

Goals saved above average (which goaliecoaches.com explains in detail here) illustrate how much better a goaltender is than the league average. This is especially useful when comparing a goaltender’s production among several seasons of data. For example, AHL’s average save percentage in 2015 was .912. This year? It’s .903.

Anyway, Wolf’s recorded the best GSAA in the AHL each of the last two seasons. Better yet, dating back to 2014, his production among U-23 goalies is elite and puts him in a cohort of notable names.

Wolf cracks the top five not just once but twice, which is eye-catching. For those that have watched him live several times, it’s not much of a surprise.

“He’s one of the smartest goalies I’ve seen come through the pro ranks,” one Western Conference scout told The Hockey News. “Over the years, you saw Andrei Vasilevsky in Syracuse and you’re like, ‘Wow.’ You saw Thatcher Demko in Utica, and you’re like, ‘Wow.’ A lot of goalies don’t give you that ‘wow’ factor — Wolf gives you that ‘wow.’”

So, why not see what Wolf can do at the NHL level? Perhaps he could be part of the solution for salvaging the rest of this season. But it’s sort of one of those “Better the devil you know, than the devil you don’t” situations. There are still so many unknowns with Wolf, and bringing him would be a massive gamble.

“You don’t want to rush him,” the scout said. “You don’t want to bring them up before they’re ready, and as a young goalie, it can shake your confidence, and that can be bad too. That could set them off on a bad path that way, confidence-wise.”

While his AHL output is a strong indicator he could become a great NHL goalie, it doesn’t prove Wolf would be an upgrade right now. The Hellebuycks, Saros, Demkos and Gibsons on that list didn’t immediately become NHL starters after posting elite AHL GSAA. The average number of NHL games played the following season, among those four, was just under 20. 

Goalies take the longest to develop — the average age of an NHL goalie is 28, and there’s a reason for that. Repetitions are key to graduating from the AHL to the NHL, and staying with the Wranglers would forge Wolf just that. Being recalled to partake in a three-man rotation with Jacob Markstrom and Dan Vladar would not. 

Markstrom may be cold this year, but the odds of a player as good as he’s been over the last couple of years figuring it out, as opposed to an unproven prospect, are much higher. 

Although it’s less obvious than expected, the best action is to keep Wolf in the AHL for now. Let him continue to play a big role for the Wranglers, who currently sit atop the AHL standings and look poised to make a serious Calder Cup run. He can share the crease with Markstrom, who is on the books at $6 million until the end of the 2025-26 season, and form an efficient tandem.

Calgary has no choice but to stick with the goalies they have now. Banking on Markstrom — who was ranked the eighth-best goalie in the league in an anonymous poll of league personnel conducted by ESPN — bouncing back is a much safer bet than hoping Wolf can come in and become an NHL goaltender overnight.

But rest assured Flames fans, these crease controversies are probably for the short term. You’ve got an excellent one waiting in the wings in Wolf.

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