We’re less than three weeks into the regular season and the positive vibes that surrounded the Calgary Flames heading into the 2023-24 season have already dissolved.
Calgary is sitting in the basement of the NHL’s standings with a 2-7-1 record. In addition to ranking 28th in goals for per game (2.20) and 29th in goals allowed per game (3.70), Calgary has been outscored 27-13 during 5-on-5 play. Jonathan Huberdeau — who is in year one of an eight-year, $84-million contract — is struggling mightily, with just five points in 10 games. Nazem Kadri has four in just as many.
The most concerning part of the Flames’ struggles, however, is between the pipes in the crease.
Jacob Markstrom hasn’t been any better than last year, while Daniel Vladar is nearly unplayable, leaving Calgary ranked 30th in team save percentage (.873) as a result. Mind you, despite the myriad of issues plaguing them, Calgary isn’t hanging their goaltenders out to dry. According to NHL Edge, the Flames only spend 38.6 percent of the game in the defensive zone, which places them in the 93rd percentile league-wide.
Luckily for Calgary, they have a potential solution waiting in the wings.
Dustin Wolf — one of the best goalie prospects on the planet — has been dominant at the AHL level over the last few seasons. It’s time the Flames give the 22-year-old some NHL runway.
Wolf, a 2019 seventh-round pick, has recorded a .931 save percentage in 109 career AHL games. Among U-23 AHL goalies from the past decade (minimum 60 games), only Matt Murray (.936) has performed better than Wolf — who sits ahead of notable names like Connor Hellebuyck, Jusse Sarros and Thatcher Demko.
Make no mistake, Wolf’s production isn’t just impressive among his age cohort – he’s coming off back-to-back seasons where he was named AHL Goaltender Of The Year and awarded AHL First All-Star Team honors. Last season, Wolf – the AHL’s MVP – posted 46.19 Goals Saved Above Average (GSAA), which equated to the highest single-season mark of any AHL goaltender from the past decade. The year before that? He posted 30.75 GSAA, as a rookie, which ranks fifth.
Before training camp got underway, Flames GM Craig Conroy told The Athletic that he wanted Wolf to play in NHL games this year, however, a mediocre preseason showing from Wolf didn’t force the Flames’ hand in keeping three goalies on the roster or trading one of their netminders, presumably Vladar. In an interview with the Barn Burner Podcast before the start of the regular season, Conroy spoke about Wolf being disappointed with the demotion and that the young netminder was justified in feeling that way.
“He’s done everything he can,” Conroy said.
Back then, maybe keeping Markstrom and Vladar as a duo was the right thing to do. But now? It’s hard to justify. Markstrom is capable of being a better goalie than his current .897 save percentage, but at 33 years old, it's tough to ask him to shoulder 80 percent of the workload. Compounding that issue, it’s been quite a while since Vladar has looked anywhere near good enough to be a 1B option in net.
So, why not give Wolf a chance? Besides, Conroy made it clear in his introductory press conference that there will be jobs up for grabs, contrary to the previous regime — where players, like Matthew Phillips, never got a sniff, no matter how much they showed at the AHL level.
You can use any age-old adage to argue against recalling Wolf: How he’s too small at six feet, too young at 22, too inexperienced as a third-year pro.
Those each may be true in most cases, but when talking about a prospect like Wolf – who is the epitome of an outlier — you can’t be handicapped by that sort of noise. His body of work speaks for itself, and as Conroy said, he’s done everything he can.
Sure, goaltenders take longer to develop than skaters, but the goalie position is evolving. Tandems are more prevalent than ever and it’s not like Wolf would be starting 60-plus games or riding the pine as a backup. There’s little risk in auditioning him for a 1B role.
There’s also an argument to be made that recalling Wolf could motivate Markstrom, who has three years remaining on his contract that pays him $6-million annually. Oftentimes, internal competition can bring the best out of goaltenders, and worst-case scenario, if Wolf struggles, you simply send him back to the AHL and use the opportunity as a learning experience.
“Everybody wants to see him — the whole city – probably when I walk around the city that’s the [thing I’m asked most]; ‘what are you doing with Wolf?” Coroy continued on the BarnBurner podcast.
Stop overthinking this, Calgary.