There was a problem midway through the Everett Silvertips second round, Game 5 against the Portland Winterhawks during the WHL playoffs last year. Carter Hart, the Everett goalie who had seemingly won every accolade a player can, suddenly became ill. At the second-period media timeout he rushed to the Everett bench and down the hallway to the home dressing room. Rookie back up Dustin Wolf hadn’t played in about a month but had to come into a 1-0 game and try to guide Everett to the win and advance to the conference championships.
“He just came running off at the timeout and said, ‘you’ve got to go in’,” Wolf says of the moment. “You always want to be prepared but when you’re on the bench behind Carter Hart, you’re just hanging out. All of sudden you have to go in. It took me by surprise.”
Wolf played just over nine minutes in that game, made four saves, and held off a Portland team that featured four first-round NHL draft picks.
Hart would return to start the third period and the Silvertips advanced in the WHL playoffs. It was an experience Wolf won’t soon forget.
“I didn’t want to go back to Portland,” Wolf remembers about the game. “Just get it through this period and maybe he’ll come back. I think there’s a little rust when you don’t play in games for a little while. You’re in practice mode, being in practice is so different from playing in the games. I got that little bit of experience that will help out going into this year.”
As Wolf and the Silvertips prepare for this year, Hart is no longer in the picture. After winning three straight WHL Goalie of the Year awards, a CHL Goalie of the Year award, a WHL Player of the Year award, and a gold medal with Team Canada at the World Junior Championships, Hart is off to the Philadelphia Flyers organization.
That leaves the spotlight shining brightly on Wolf which is something the Los Angeles product is prepared for.
“I made it so I’m in this place for a reason,” he says about the pressure. “I put my work in over the summer and throughout my playing career. I think I’m ready to take this next step and take the starting role. I try not to worry too much about the outside stuff.”
Don’t be surprised if the Silvertips don’t see much of a drop off in net now that Wolf is taking over.
Playing in a back up role last year, he appeared in 20 games and recorded four shut outs while posting a 13-6 record. He did that with a .928 save-percentage and a 2.24 goals-against average.
Those are strong numbers but is he ready to play every night as the number one goalie?
The Silvertips got a preview of what life might look like with Wolf as the number one last winter. While Hart was off to the World Juniors in December, Wolf stepped up and into the crease. Everett was in first place in the U.S. Division and didn’t want to relinquish it.
Wolf started 12 games from early December to the middle of January. The Silvertips won eight of those and Wolf recorded three shutouts. He also spotted a .917 save-percentage, a 2.63 goals-against as Everett pulled further ahead of Portland in the standings.
“You gain the confidence in yourself that you can play in the league and have the starting job,” Wolf says of filling in last year. “To have the experience is crucial. Just coming into this year I’m looking forward to the challenge and doing what I did last year to help the team win.”
As Wolf gets ready to start the season he gets asked a lot about playing behind Hart for a year. He admits that it was an opportunity that was one of the main reasons he decided to sign with Everett, forgoing the NCAA.
When Hart was healthy, he played, but Wolf got to practice with him and learn a lot of his successful habits.
“It’s indescribable,” he says. “You just take it a day at a time and take bits and pieces from his lifestyle, try to make things your own. He does the small things correctly that so when it comes to game day and game time he’s prepared himself physically and mentally to do his best on the ice. Being able to witness him and take small and big things I think has helped me so far this summer. I’m definitely looking forward to watching him play (in the pros).”
Wolf is dealing with more than just the pressure of being the guy to replace Hart. This season is also his NHL Draft eligibility year and it is assumed he will be selected in June’s draft.
Some early prognosticators have ranked Wolf anywhere between the second and third-rounds of the draft as he has caught the eyes of NHL scouts.
“He’s extremely quick with a high hockey IQ,” one NHL scout says. “He reads plays and has the ability to make the hard save look easy. His reflexes and rebound control are very good for a goalie his age. Everett is spoiled going from Hart to Wolf without much drop off.”
As the season progresses Wolf will start to hear more and more about his NHL prospects. It’s one more layer of pressure on him this year but he is choosing to focus on what he can control.
“Try to limit the talk about it,” Wolf says of his plan to not let draft talk be a distraction. “Obviously, you love to hear about yourself but at the end of the day if you don’t play well you’re not going to go anywhere. So, putting the work in day in and day out so when it comes to game time, and people come to watch, they know I’m playing my game and this is just the beginning.”
Wolf’s hockey journey began in the San Jose area. His parents had season tickets to the San Jose Sharks and he became a fan. Former Sharks goalie Evgeni Nabokov was his favorite at first but after he moved to Los Angeles at age nine his allegiances changed.
Playing for the Junior Kings it was easy to become a Kings supporter and a fan of goalie Jonathan Quick. Wolf is part of the Southern California hockey pipeline that has grown over the past 25 years and is now producing prospects.
Wolf could also be the next great American goalie, much like Quick has been. He played for Team USA at this summer’s Hlinka-Gretzky Cup in Edmonton. Wolf finished that tournament, against some of the best players in the world, with a 2.65 goals-against and would have backstopped the Americans into the gold medal game if not for some questionable clock issues.
While he feels that the U.S. team deserved a better fate, playing in that tournament puts Wolf on the radar for a future World Junior spot.
“I’ve witnessed Carter go through it the past two years and he talked highly about it,” Wolf says of the World Juniors. “He went through Canada and hopefully I’m given the opportunity to go through the USA system. To play at such a big stage is incredible, I’d be honored to wear the USA sweater again.”
The World Juniors are a year or two away for Wolf. For now, he’s going to worry about the season before him and the Silvertips. It’s a season that comes a year after Everett advanced to the WHL Championship Series and expectations are perhaps higher than ever.
Wolf’s demeanor and preparation have him in a position to handle the Hart and NHL Draft pressures with ease.
“I just strive to be the best,” he says. “I want to follow in Hart’s footsteps and be the guy at the top of the list. There are games that go your way and games that don’t, but you just try to manage it and try to put your best foot forward every day so that when it comes to game time you’re able to succeed.”
You can catch Wolf and the Silvertips in action this weekend in the Delta Hotels Pre-season Classic at Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett. All five U.S. Division teams will be in action starting Friday morning at 11:30 am.
Tickets for all of the games can be purchased online here and the full schedule is below:
Friday, August 31st
11:30 AM VAN vs. SEA
3:00 PM POR vs. SPO
7:00 PM TC vs. EVT
Saturday, September 1st
11:30 AM TC vs. POR
3:00 PM SPO vs. VAN
7:00 PM SEA vs. EVT
Sunday, September 2rd
11:30 AM VAN vs. TC
3:00 PM SEA vs. SPO
7:00 PM POR vs. EVT