Wolf still learning, but outlook is already bright

Photo: Abbotsford Canucks

📝 by Patrick Williams

“It was kind of an eye-opener,” Stockton Heat goaltender Dustin Wolf remembers from his introduction to the American Hockey League last season.

“Pro hockey is just a different animal.”

It certainly is. Up against a rather potent Toronto Marlies lineup at Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary in his pro debut Feb. 21, 2021, Wolf’s afternoon ended after 28 minutes with the Heat in a 5-0 hole.

But three days later, he battled those same Marlies again, took a 4-2 win with 36 saves, and has been on his way ever since.

Now in his first full pro season, Wolf is opening other people’s eyes much like he did throughout his junior career. Wolf has crafted a 23-4-3 mark to go with a 2.33 goals-against average (eighth in the AHL) and a .923 save percentage (third-best). His 1,803 minutes played and 915 shots faced are fourth-most among AHL netminders as well.

Not bad for someone who lingered until the seventh round of the 2019 National Hockey League Draft before the Calgary Flames took a chance on him. Wolf was the final goaltender drafted that year, and only three players went after him.

Wolf’s success in Stockton follows a standout career with Everett, where he led the WHL in GAA and save percentage in both 2018-19 and 2019-20 and was named the Canadian Hockey League Goaltender of the Year in 2019-20.

For good measure in 2020-21, he partnered with Spencer Knight (now of the Charlotte Checkers) to take the United States to a gold medal at the IIHF World Junior Championship. Following his return to Everett last season, he put together an 18-3-0 record, 1.80 GAA, and .940 save percentage in an abbreviated 22-game run.

This season brought his first full foray into the AHL game with the Heat and new head coach Mitch Love.

“You know, junior hockey is pretty predictable in ways,” Wolf said. “Everybody does the same stuff.”

“[In the AHL] it’s still a learning process and trying to figure out everything between hockey, the lifestyle changes, and all that.”

If this is Wolf’s learning process, imagine when he figures this league out more. One of the AHL’s top Calder Cup contenders, the Heat are first overall in the league with a record of 31-9-4-1 (.744) entering tonight’s meeting with the San Diego Gulls at Stockton Arena.

“It’s awesome to find team success, and it’s awesome to be able to learn while also you’re being able to win games,” Wolf said.

“I think I take a lot of pride in preparation for playing. It’s kind of the foundation for my play. But I think on the ice, everybody [in the AHL] is a lot bigger, a lot faster, a lot more skilled, and can place pucks in small areas. Dealing with good shooters and guys who know how to play hockey at a high level and [have] done it for many, many years… [it’s] just finding new ways to keep the puck out of the net.

“In junior, it’s pretty easy to just rely on basic structure, and you don’t really have to go outside the box very much. But pro hockey, no matter how you stop it, just find a way, and sometimes [saves are] not pretty.”

Thomas Speer, Stockton’s third-year goaltending coach who has grown close to the mobile 6-foot, 170-pound Wolf, has seen that progress from this seventh-rounder-turned-standout-prospect.

Photo: Abbotsford Canucks

“He can watch pucks really well compared to most,” Speer started. “You know, he’s not 6-foot-4, so he has to really skate well.”

But it’s Wolf’s demeanor that especially stands out to Speer.

“I think it’s a little cliche, but he’s one of those goalies who is just born to play hockey and to be a goalie,” Speer continued. “He comes to the rink every day wanting to get better. He’s one of the first guys in, and he’ll be in the gym [each afternoon] until 1:00, 2:00, just stretching out, working on his body to make sure he’s ready to go.

“For him, that’s not work. That’s what he does. His mindset to be at the arena and just work hard is another reason why he’s had so much success.”

Speer also believes that Wolf’s work ethic and mental outlook are tied together, helping him to move past a tough night like that first start back in Calgary last season.

Said Speer, “When you do everything you can on and off the ice, good or bad it’s a lot easier to rebound, right? Because what else can you do? You put in the work, you sink or swim.

“He never really wavered; he doesn’t question his ability to make the next save the next game. And because of that, I think, he doesn’t really ever question himself.”

In two months, Wolf will have a chance to experience the Calder Cup Playoffs. That means that Speer wants Wolf to embrace the pressure and demands that a regular-season stretch drive and postseason play will provide for his development.

“Pressure is a privilege,” Speer asserted. “If there’s no pressure on you, you’re probably not asked to do too much.”

Stockton has 10 games in the next 19 nights and 23 games remaining overall, including a home-and-home set with second-place Ontario on April 8 and 10. With that type of gauntlet, they will need the best that Wolf and experienced partner Adam Werner can provide.

“[The keys will be] taking care of your body to make sure you’re physically in good shape and a good mindset going into each and every game,” Wolf stressed. “Your body is your tool, and you’ve got to make sure you’re in tip-top shape for when you get the call. Taking pride in your stretching, your habits away from the rink when it comes to eating and sleeping right, all the little things.

“It’s still a learning process for myself. I’m certainly not perfect at it all, but step-by-step.”