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Jr. Kings alum, Gilroy native Wolf making big strides in first pro season with AHL’s Heat

 

Dustin Wolf Heat-cover

For being the 214th player selected in the 2019 NHL Draft, Gilroy native Dustin Wolf is doing quite well for himself in his first professional season.

Make that extraordinarily well, in fact.

Taken in the seventh round by the Calgary Flames, Wolf, 21, has had a major impact on the fortunes of the Stockton Heat, the Flames’ top developmental team in the American Hockey League. In 45 appearances during the 2021-22 season, Wolf has consistently shut the door on opponents with an impressive 32-8-4 record, 2.36 goals-against average and a .923 save percentage.

The 22nd and final goaltender taken in the draft, he has played well above what many may have expected from a seventh-round pick.

The Northern California native leads all AHL rookie netminders in wins, goals-against average and save percentage. The equivalent in baseball might be akin to hitting for the cycle.

He has set a Stockton club record for single-season goaltender wins – and counting. He is also on pace to set club records for goaltending average and save percentage.

And this coming from someone who is considered undersized at six feet tall and 170 pounds to play the position.

But good things often come in small packages.

Wolf has proved that after winning two goaltender of the year awards in the Western Hockey League with the Everett Silvertips, and earning the Canadian Hockey League’s Goaltender of the Year award in 2019-20. He set a Silvertips franchise record with 216:27 consecutive shutout minutes during a stretch in March 2021, his final season with the team.

The Canadian Hockey League’s Scholastic Player of the Year in 2018-19, Wolf has obviously done his homework well. He’s learned that athleticism and good positioning can make up for any shortfall in height.

Consider these numbers:

Wolf, who shares the crease with 6-foot-5 Adam Werner (who will make any goaltender look small when standing next to him), drew instant attention throughout the league with a blockbuster 15-0-2 start between the pipes that included a 10-game winning streak from Nov. 21 to Jan. 2. He did not suffer his first regulation loss until Jan. 4 of this year against the Tucson Roadrunners.

After regularly collecting notice in three-star awards in early season games (an honor in which he continues to do so), the AHL formally recognized Wolf as its Goaltender of the Month for December after he notched a perfect 7-0-0 record, 1.40 goals-against average and a .951 save percentage.

Wolf has kept his numbers down – and his team in championship contention – with his consistent play between the pipes. Heading into the final three weeks of regular-season play, he ranked fourth among goaltenders in the 31-team league in goaltending average and second in save percentage.

Amazingly, he went 42 games into his rookie pro season without suffering back-to-back losses.

Werner’s record, by contrast, was 11-5-2 with a 3.15 GAA and a .879 save percentage in 19 game appearances – placing the rookie in the front seat for much of the Heat’s goaltending prowess this season. Wolf has backstopped 32 of the Heat’s 43 wins through 63 games – a 74.4 percent winning percentage.

Wolf-face_7215The Heat, with a combined 2.71 goals per game average, ranked second to the Central Division-leading Chicago Wolves (2.54 goals per game) for top honors as the AHL’s top defensive team.

The Heat held down a lofty 18-2-2-1 mark at the Christmas break. It was then that Wolf received his first call-up to the NHL.

“It’s pretty rewarding to get your first call-up,” Wolf said. “It’s always been your dream ever since you were a kid. Even though I didn’t play, it was exciting coming there and meeting all the other players. I’m hoping it’s the first of many times I get to experience that.

“I can’t wait to get started with Calgary. It’s going to be a fun ride.”

But does Wolf, who has yet to play in an NHL game in his fledgling pro career, have what it takes to play in the planet’s top league? Is he the Flames’ goaltender of the future?

He’d certainly like to think so. But he’s aware one season is just one season. He’d like to build on what he’s already accomplished before he gets ahead of himself.

“As you get older, you get more experience,” Wolf said knowingly.

San Diego native Thatcher Demko spent two full seasons and part of a third with the Vancouver Canucks’ AHL development team in Utica, N.Y., before finally sticking with the parent club. Demko, who stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 192 pounds, had logged 60 NHL games this season with a 32-20-6 record after earning the nod as the team’s No. 1 goaltender in his third full season with the Canucks.

It’s an almost given that NHL teams do not rush the development of goaltending prospects. It’s all a process that Wolf understands.

“You’re trying to do the best you can and still have fun,” Wolf said. “There’s more pressure on what is being expected of you. I’m just going out to play my game and give my team a chance to win. If I can do that and take care of business, be the best teammate possible, the opportunity will come and I’ll take full advantage of it.”

That being said, there are exceptions to the rule.

Wolf played behind Carter Hart for one season with the Silvertips. Hart (6-2, 181) posted exceptional numbers his final four seasons in the WHL, including three as the CHL goaltender of the year award-winner. They read like hot sheet to the NHL — 2.29 GAA, 0.915 SPCT and 18-5-5 record in 2014-15; 2.14 GAA, 0.918 SPCT and 35-23-4 record in 2015-16; 1.99 GAA, 0.927 SPCT and 32-11-2 record in 2016-17; and 1.60 GAA, 0.947 SPCT and 31-6-3 record in 2017-18.

The Philadelphia Flyers selected Hart in the second round of the 2016 draft as the 48th player overall. Hart appeared in 18 games with the AHL Lehigh Valley Phantoms his rookie year before finishing the season with 31 game appearances with the Flyers. He became the youngest goaltender in the history of the Flyers organization to win his NHL debut and the youngest player in the Flyers organization to win a postseason game.

He earned the NHL Rookie of the Month award for January 2019 with a 6-2-1 record, 2.33 GAA and 0.931 save percentage.

Hart has remained with the Flyers for the past four seasons, appearing in 45 games so far in 2021-22 with a 13-24-7 record, 3.16 GAA and a .905 save percentage. It’s understandably a big jump from the WHL to the AHL and from the AHL to the NHL.

Wolf said receiving the opportunity to play behind Hart was one of the seasons he wanted to play in Everett.

There wasn’t much of a drop-off in the position when Hart turned pro.

Wolf stepped in with a 13-6-0 record, 2.25 GAA and 0.928 SPCT as Hart’s understudy and blossomed his second full season in the WHL with a 41-15-2 record, 1.69 GAA and 0.936 save percentage in 61 game appearances. He had the highest save percentage by any goaltender in the Canadian Hockey League to go with a WHL-best goaltending average. He logged 46 games in 2019-20 with a 34-10-2 record, 1.88 GAA and 0.935 SPCT – both league bests – en route to earning WHL Goaltender of the Year accolades.

In the shortened 2020-21 season, Wolf posted an 18-3 record in 22 games with a 1.80 GAA and 0.940 SPCT.

That earned him a look-see with Stockton where he appeared in three AHL games with a 2-1 record, 3.24 GAA and 0.895 SPCT.

At the international level, Wolf represented the United States at the World Junior U-20 Championships in both 2020 and 2021, winning a gold medal in 2021 with a perfect 1.00 save percentage in two game appearances, including a shutout in an 11-0 victory against Austria.

He earned recognition as the 2019-20 USA Hockey Junior Goaltender of the Year.

Wolf said he found his proving ground in the WHL.

“I just wanted to play as many games as I could,” Wolf said. “It was a lot of fun playing there. I knew the next step was to play pro hockey. You got to put your time in.”

During his stay in the WHL, he also learned about setting priorities.

“It was nice to achieve personal goals,” Wolf explained. “It’s the team goal that comes first, being prepared no matter who you play. We had a good team every year I was there and I wasn’t able to win a league championship, but I look back fondly at the success we had.”

The Silvertips lost in the league final in 2017-18 his first year with the team, lost in the Western Conference semifinals in 2018-19, had the 2019-20 season canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic and were unable to participate in postseason play in 2020-21 because of the league’s shortened season.

But all that could change soon.

The Heat was the first team in the AHL to qualify for the upcoming Calder Cup playoffs. Stockton has held down first place in the Pacific Division standings for virtually the entire season after getting off to a 10-0-2-0 start.

The Heat has already set a club record for wins in a season and will be making its first playoff appearance since 2017.

Should Stockton earn the No. 1 seed in the Pacific Division playoffs, the Heat will receive a bye to the division semifinals.

Stockton held a three-point lead on the second place Ontario Reign, the AHL affiliate of the Los Angeles Kings, in the division standings with four regular season games remaining for the Reign. The winner of the sprint to the finish will receive the first round bye while the loser will host the No. 7 seed in the opening round of the division playoffs.

But Wolf admits for all the success the team has carved out for itself this season (a league-best 0.730 winning percentage through Easter Sunday), the playoffs remain another proving ground.

“You’ve got to take it one game at a time,” he said. “For sure, we have a lot of expectations but we have a lot of hockey still to play (to meet those expectations). It’s about building up for these last games. We want to be at the top of our game when the playoffs start.”

Southern exposure

While Wolf was born in Gilroy and played junior hockey in the Pacific Northwest, Wolf’s youth career essentially got its launch in Southern California with the Los Angeles Jr. Kings.

Wolf and his family relocated to Southern California so he could take part in a more formalized approach to his development as a goaltender. He spent three seasons in the L.A. Jr. Kings program (13U AAA to 16U AAA) before eventually making the transition to the WHL and ultimately signing a three-year, entry-level NHL contract in May 2020 at age 19.

His first call-up to the NHL eventually followed in that time line.

“We lived in Hermosa Beach and then in Orange County,” Wolf recalled. “Growing up in San Jose, we had the Sharks. As a kid in the L.A. area at 10, I switched over to the Kings. But it’s been my dream to be in the NHL some day.

“We got to go to more well-known tournaments, let people see you. It worked out pretty much for the most part, looking back at it.”

Dustin Wolf closeup

Wolf got his feet wet in the Tier 1 Elite Hockey League with the Jr. Kings, starting at the 13U AAA level in 2014-15 and graduating up the ranks to the 14U AAA and 16U AAA levels in 2015-17.

Wolf competed in the celebrated Quebec International Pee Wee Tournament with the Jr. Kings during the 2013-14 season, registering a 2.19 GAA in four games.

He also logged seven games with Team USA select teams in 2016-17 and 2018-19. He appeared in three Hlinka Gretzky Cup games for the United States in 2018-19 with a 2.65 GAA and a .909 save percentage.

When Wolf was drafted by the Flames, he profusely thanked his parents and family for their support – and sacrifice – to get him to that point in launching his professional career.

“What a whirlwind of a day,” he tweeted on draft day. “Beyond excited and grateful to be picked by the Flames. Wouldn’t be here without my family and friends along the way.”

And, of course, the best may be yet to come.

Through it all, however, Wolf knows where his roots are.

“The game in California really continues to grow in the years since I’ve been playing,” he explained. “It’s cool to see more players coming out of California and finding success. Everyone knows everyone. The community is tight. It gives us more support.”

Duck call

Defenseman Drew Helleson could be next in line to get a shot at the NHL after signing a three-year, entry-level contract with the Anaheim Ducks on March 15. Helleson, who played the 2014-15 season on the Jr. Kings’ 13U AAA team, was originally drafted in the second round (47th overall) by the Colorado Avalanche in the 2019 NHL Draft but elected to play at Boston College.

The Ducks acquired the rights to Helleson in a trade with the Avs on March 14 of this year and the Ducks promptly signed the then 20-year old native of Farmington, Minn., the next day. Helleson didn’t have to wait long for his pro debut as he hit the ice with the San Diego Gulls, the Ducks’ top developmental affiliate, in a March 23 AHL game against the visiting Tucson Roadrunners.

Helleson got an instant read on his capabilities by earning a spot on the Gulls’ first shift in the game. He finished the game with his first pro point, an assist, in the Gulls’ 4-3 win over the Roadrunners, the top developmental affiliate of the Arizona Coyotes.

“Yeah, obviously, the first shift you kind of get the nerves out a little bit, but after that it felt good, you know, just getting comfortable with the guys and with the pace,” the 6-foot-3, 191-pound Helleson said after his first pro game. “The guys are great, they’re super welcoming, so it was kind of easy to make the adjustment and they are all helping me out to get used to it.

“First it was to get a win, that was the most important thing. We got that done, thankfully. But just kind of getting used to it a little bit with the pace and this was my first pro game, so, you know, I kind of want to get it under my belt and I thought it worked out pretty well.”

Helleson was paired alongside Swedish defenseman Jacob Larsson, a first-round draft pick (27th overall) by Anaheim in the 2015 NHL Draft. The 6-foot-2, 190-pound Larsson has logged 165 games with the parent Ducks and has been a stabilizing force on the Gulls’ blue line for the past four seasons.

helleson_2857crop

Helleson called it an “awesome” experience to have a mentor at his side.

“I mean, he’s a great guy,” Helleson said. “I don’t know him that well, but he’s been great helping me with faceoff plays, this and that. He’s a great communicator, too, so it’s been great so far.”

Helleson, who turned 21 on March 26, comes to the Ducks organization highly decorated after spending two seasons at Shattuck St. Mary’s (14U AAA and 16U AAA), two years with the United States National Development Team Program (2017-18 and 2018-19) and three seasons at Boston College (2019-22).

He played on three Team USA age-group teams in international tournament competition – U17 at the World Hockey Challenge in 2017-18, U18 at the World Junior Championship in 2018-19 and U20 at the World Junior Championship in 2020-21.

Regarded as a puck-moving defenseman who skates smoothly in all three zones, Helleson collected 71 points in 98 games at Shattuck St. Mary’s, logged 125 games in the U.S. national development program and suited up for 62 games over two years in the United States Hockey League.

He won gold medals at the U17 World Hockey Challenge and U20 World Junior Challenge and a bronze medal at the U18 World Hockey Challenge.

At the U20 WJC, he collected the most goals by a defenseman. He notched the primary assist on the game-winning goal by Alex Turcotte in the gold medal game against Canada, a moment he particularly remains proud of.

Helleson appeared in 82 regular-season NCAA games at Boston College with nine goals and 37 assists for 46 points.

The Eagles won the 2019-20 Hockey East regular-season championship and had the highest finish in 2020-21, though no official title was award because of the disparity in number of games caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

He earned accolades during the 2020-21 season as the Hockey East Best Defensive Defenseman, First Team All-Hockey East honors and American Hockey Coaches Association (AHCA) Second Team All-American honors.

He finished his junior season with 21 assists and 25 points in 32 games before signing with the Ducks.

His biggest playing stage so far has to be earning a roster spot on the Team USA squad that competed at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games. He posted one assist in three games in China as a youthful United States team finished in fifth place.

Nonetheless, he called it an “amazing experience.”

“It’s something I’ll never forget,” he said.

There are more memories to come.

The Gulls have qualified for the upcoming Calder Cup playoffs. The opening round is scheduled to face off the first week in May. By then, Helleson should have logged nearly 20 AHL games under his skates.

“It’s been crazy with the trade and then signing and then getting down here,” Helleson said. “But I just want to help the team as much as I can. Whatever that is, I’m here and I want to be part of that playoff push.”

Photos/Phillip Brents

— Phillip Brents

(April 18, 2022)


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