Following in the footsteps of Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Carter Hart isn't an easy accomplishment. He's a rare example of a goalie earning an NHL starting role less than half a year after finishing junior hockey and truly looks primed to become a star in the long run.
But that's what Dustin Wolf was tasked with this season with the Everett Silvertips, home to Carter Hart for five years as he became a star with the Canadian national junior team while winning three consecutive WHL top goaltender awards. In most cases, sitting behind a goalie many consider to be one of the best in league history means you won't have an opportunity to showcase what you can do. But getting the chance to study a player like Hart is what made the Silvertips an intriguing option for Wolf.
"It's one of the biggest reasons why I came to Everett," Wolf said. "We had a plan where I'd come in in my rookie season, sit behind Hart and learn the ropes. Just get some experience before I play some more games. It was pretty awesome getting to witness what he does on and off the ice to prepare himself for each and every game."
How did Wolf answer in his first year as a starting goalie? Not only did he lead the league in goals-against average (1.69) and save percentage (.936) and get named to the league's first all-star team, but Wolf also was named the CHL and WHL scholastic player of the year winner for his school work. Add in his six WHL goaltender of the week awards and the fact he was the only one to win the CHL goaltender of the week title three times this year and you have one heck of a player.
"I always strive to be the best at everything I do," Wolf said. "I learned a lot in my first season (as a starting goalie), what to expect in the coming years, and it's pretty awesome to see how good of a year I had. By no means is that the end, though. I still got more to work on and hopefully will get better results next season."
Teams know what he's capable of: Wolf became the first goalie in Silvertips history to hit the 40-win mark in a season and led all CHL goaltenders with seven shutouts. Yet, despite that, Wolf is not among the top buzz-makers for the NHL draft. Scouts have made note of his six-foot, 161-pound stature, with his size not being what NHL teams are looking for in an era where 6-foot-3 and up netminders rule the world (some scouts have even called Hart too small at 6-foot-2). Teams are starting to move away from the measuring tape when it comes to skilled forwards, but in the crease, teams typically lean for bigger goalies. Wolf acknowledges the size debate, but he doesn't let that get to him.
"I track pucks really well. If I see the puck, I'm going to stop it," Wolf said. "I try to do everything I can to make myself look big in the net. Obviously, size would help, but it's not going to be the end-all of stopping pucks."
Wolf, the 12th-ranked North American goaltender by the NHL's Central Scouting Service, has used the detractors as motivation to get better, even if he was disappointed as to how he was rated throughout the year.
"It wasn't the result you want," Wolf said. "Definitely, it pushes me to be better on the ice and off the ice in the gym. At the end of the day, I just look at it as somebody's personal opinion."
Wolf says the biggest strength of his game is his skating, allowing him to move quickly around the crease and to make up for being a smaller goaltender. One scout at the draft combine said he was very impressed with Wolf's rebound control and his strong puck-handling ability in a similar fashion to Marty Turco, a 5-foot-11 puckstopper who had no issues becoming a top goaltender in his time.
Wolf, who will be joined by friends and family on the short drive to Vancouver from Everett next week, will be a contender to win the WHL's top goaltender award next season at 18 while also being a leading candidate to fight Spencer Knight for starts on the American world junior team. Sure, teams may not like Wolf's smaller stature right now, but size doesn't matter if he knows how to use it.
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