‘He wants to be better than everybody else’: Dustin Wolf leads the way as the Stockton Heat chase the Calder Cup
Photo credit:Provided by the Stockton Heat
By Mike Gould1 year ago
Dustin Wolf watched a lot of Los Angeles Kings games growing up.
Although his family now lives in Seattle, Wolf moved to Los Angeles when he was nine years old and spent many of his formative years playing in the Los Angeles Jr. Kings organization.
Along the way, the young pup had an up-close look at a burgeoning hockey dynasty at Staples Center.
“It was 2010 and the Kings were just starting to come together. Next thing you know, they win two Cups,” Wolf said. “I had coaches who were within the Kings organization, so you already felt pretty close to them.”
Wolf, now a 21-year-old prospect in the Calgary Flames system, is currently leading the charge for the Stockton Heat in the 2022 Calder Cup Playoffs.
The reigning American Hockey League Goaltender of the Year, generously listed by the league as standing exactly six feet tall and weighing 170 pounds, posted a stunning 33–9–4 record and a .924 save percentage in 47 appearances as the Heat finished as the AHL’s second-best team (45–16–7) in the 2021–22 regular season.
Despite going without a single shutout in those 47 games, Wolf proceeded to post two in a row to open Stockton’s best-of-five Pacific Division Final series against the Colorado Eagles.
The Heat can eliminate the Eagles — and maintain their perfect 2022 playoff record — with a win in Game 3 on Friday. Stockton previously swept the Bakersfield Condors in the Pacific Division Semifinal.
Through his first five AHL playoff appearances, Wolf has a 5–0 record, a .951 save percentage, and — as mentioned — his first two pro shutouts.
Two years after Wolf’s family arrived in Los Angeles, the Kings’ young starting goaltender posted similar numbers in the post-season. Back in 2012, @Jonathan Quick dazzled onlookers with a 16–4 record and a .946 save percentage (plus three shutouts) in 20 playoff games.
Fans in Los Angeles quickly took notice when Quick arrived on the scene with the Kings. Despite standing just 6’1″, Quick made up for his lack of size with ridiculous athleticism and almost unparalleled lateral movement in the crease.
Win or lose, No. 32 pretty much always gave his team’s fans at least one reason to cheer.
Remind you of anybody?
Quick’s reign in Los Angeles has now lasted 15 seasons. How many young goaltenders in southern California have adopted his No. 32 while rising through the ranks over the last decade and a half?
You can count Wolf as one of them.
“It was pretty awesome to watch not only what the [Kings] did, but what he did personally,” Wolf said. “He was the best player out there every game. He’s still a tremendous player and athlete.”
Current Flames head coach Darryl Sutter manned the bench in Los Angeles as Quick and the Kings won the Stanley Cup in 2012 and 2014.
Under Sutter’s tutelage, Quick won the Conn Smythe Trophy and the William M. Jennings Trophy. He was twice named a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, which @Jacob Markstrom is currently up for in the wake of his first full season playing for Sutter.
While it remains to be seen whether Sutter will still be behind the Flames’ bench when Wolf breaks into the big league, the two have already crossed paths in Calgary.
“It was awesome to come into camp and start to build that relationship a little bit, even though it’s still pretty minor,” Wolf said. “He’s all about his goalies and making sure they get what they need.”
In late December 2021, with Dan Vladar on the shelf due to the NHL’s COVID-19 protocols, Wolf received the call to go home to Seattle and back up Markstrom for a game against the Kraken.
Markstrom faced just 22 shots as the Flames defeated the Kraken 6–4. Wolf absorbed everything from the bench while sitting only feet away from the coach who guided his hometown team to a pair of championships.
“When I was up there, his message was to just take it in and enjoy it,” Wolf said. “It’s pretty awesome to be considered, that there’s a chance you could be playing for not only Darryl, but the Flames.”
As the playoffs currently stand, Stockton needs to win nine more games to capture the Calder Cup.
Both the Western Conference Final and the Calder Cup Final will be best-of-seven series, although the Heat still need to close things out against Colorado before they can advance.
Heat bench boss (and reigning AHL Coach of the Year) Mitch Love is very familiar with his starting goaltender. Love, 37, served as an assistant coach with the Western Hockey League’s Everett Silvertips in the 2017–18 season, Wolf’s first with the team.
Wolf eventually succeeded Carter Hart as Everett’s starter for the 2019–20 and 2020–21 seasons, winning the WHL’s Goaltender of the Year award in both.
By then, Love had accepted a head coaching position with the Saskatoon Blades, a job he held for three seasons before he joined the Heat in 2021. Even during his time in Saskatchewan, Love kept a close eye on his former pupil.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to know Dustin since he was 15 years old in my time with him in Everett,” Love said. “I think the one thing that really sticks out for me about Dustin, and what he’s been able to do for our group this year as a 20-year-old first-year goaltender, is his preparation and his mindset.
“He’s a competitive kid, he wants to be good, he wants to be better than everybody else.”
Forget being the AHL’s top rookie goaltender in 2021–22. Wolf was named the AHL’s top goaltender, period. (He also earned a spot on the AHL’s end-of-season First All-Star Team and All-Rookie Team).
Wolf led all AHL netminders in wins (33), ranked fourth in save percentage (.924), and finished with the second-most minutes played (2,809:37). He’s also the only goalie who has yet to record a loss in five or more playoff games this year.
On a Heat team with multiple recent first-round draft picks and numerous high-end AHL veterans, Wolf — a first-year professional goaltender who was drafted in the seventh round less than three years ago — is arguably the centrepiece.
“With Dustin, there’s not much really to say,” laughed Heat forward Matthew Phillips, the team’s all-time leading scorer. “He’s unbelievable. He’s the best goalie I’ve kind of really ever played with.
“Obviously I don’t know too much technically, but every time I shoot on him he’s square to the puck, no matter how he got there,” Phillips added. “Nothing really seems to faze him. He’s a really hard-working guy, he’s got a great attitude.
“We’ve been really, really lucky to have him.”
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