Because Predators starter Juuse Saros is proving that an undersized goalkeeper can still be a stalwart at NHL level, which is exactly what Flames prospect Dustin Wolf intends to do.
“It’s definitely very nice to see,” said Wolf, currently in the midst of an amazing rookie campaign with the American Hockey League’s Stockton Heat. “You know, there are not many of us who are 6 feet or less and Saros has been kind of the staple for the last few years for all the people talking about guys who are not adults in the net.
“I love the way he plays. I think he and I play a pretty similar style, so it’s great to see how he achieves the success he’s achieving. But of course I do not want to see him play too well against the Flames. ”
After all, this possible play-off preview puts his future employers against the proof that his big league aspirations are not far-fetched at all.
In an era of monsters in masks, Saros is a beacon of hope for those guys who never have to dive through the locker room door. As Flames goalkeeping coach Jordan Sigalet recalled: “He also proved people wrong.”
Indeed, he has. Is still.
Although hooked in his last start, Saros leads the league with 37 wins. That’s why you do not hear nearly as much of this other statistic – the fact that he’s one of the NHL’s smallest puck stoppers at 5-foot-11 and 180 lbs.
“The biggest thing for him is his hockey sense. “I have not seen many goalkeepers as smart as he is,” said Sigalet about Wolf. “But he needs that quality with his size. Ten years ago, 5-foot-11 or 6-foot was not considered small for a goalkeeper. But for some reason it is today, even if you have guys like Saros and (Jaroslav) Halak and (Philipp) Grubauer, guys who did it with that stature.
In fact, no one has won more AHL matches so far in 2021-’22.
Wolf, who turned 21 over Easter weekend, made the transition to the pro ranks look like a piece of cake, with an excellent record of 32-8-4 to go along with a 2.36 goals-against average and 0.923 savings percentage.
By comparison, Saros ended his first campaign in the minors with a 29-8-0 mark and 2.24 GAA, setting aside 92.0% of the shots fired in his direction with the Milwaukee Admirals in 2015-’16. Before Wolf burst onto the scene in Stockton, it was mostly Ws by an AHL rookie in recent memory.
On Tuesday, Flames fans can see the road map – he will wear number 74 in Nashville’s fold. (He will also celebrate his 27th birthday.)
Saros, who was sixth in the Vezina trophy poll last season, relies on his athleticism, his positioning and his ability to read the play and track pucks through traffic.
“These are all things that guys of their size need to succeed at a level where shots come much faster and the game is much faster,” Sigalet said. “He makes up for it with those qualities.”
It is not lost on Wolf, who challenged the Western Hockey League’s all-time exclusion record during his game with the Everett Silver Tips, but surprisingly is still looking for his first goose egg on behalf of the Heat.
“You look at some of the highlights and his lateral movement is quite exceptional and I would say you have to have it to be a smaller guy. We have to fight and just find a way. It is definitely not easy. ”
No one says it will be easy, but Wolf has a knack for frustrating wannabe snipers, even if they feel there is a lot of real estate over his shoulders.
With Jacob Markstrom signing a long-term contract and Dan Vladar showing great promise in a backup role, the Flames will not chase this coveted prospect to the Saddledome. Wolf should work in Stockton again next season.
“The biggest thing that stands out to me is just his consistency in his preparation, his focus, his mental toughness,” Sigalet praised. “He puts the same game on the table every night, no matter who he plays or how many shots he sees. He is steadfast. You could say the guys like to play in front of him. When they do have a bad game, he covers a lot of warts for them. And he just fights, in practice too. He always wants to get better and he is never satisfied with his game. ”
“I know we are not going to hold (his size) against him, but there are still people to this day who I guarantee will doubt he can play in the NHL until he really gets there and does it,” said Sigalet. . “But with the transition he has made from junior to the American Hockey League, which is a big step, and how seamlessly he has adapted to that level… I think it’s probably a little less of a leap around from the American Hockey League to go to the NHL. as it goes from the WHL to the American Hockey League. So our hope is great. He still has to prove everyone wrong, but there is no doubt in my mind that he will. ”
With five regular season dates left, starting Wednesday’s game with the Tucson Roadrunners, the Baby Flames hold the best record in the AHL at 43-14-6.
They have a deep and skilled team, but their undersized backup is perhaps the biggest key to their success. Some in Stockton believe Wolf deserves consideration for the Les Cunningham award as league MVP. He should be in the race for the top goalie and rookie-of-the-year nod.
Individual awards, however, could not be further from his mind.
Wolf wants to become a Calder Cup champion – and then he wants to follow Saros’ path to peak time.
“We have a great opportunity to do something beautiful, I think,” he said. “As a child you want to play in those matches where you have the opportunity to win something big. I’ve been part of some good teams in the past where we’ve run out, or in the last few years COVID has kind of taken a run on us. So to be part of a group that has this opportunity … I really believe we can win it. The next few months can be very enjoyable. That’s all I’m focusing on right now and I think everyone is different too. ”