'This is the place I want to be': With Dan Vladar injured, Dustin Wolf ready for extended audition with the Flames

Flames goalie-of-the-future Dustin Wolf: ‘This is definitely the opportunity I’ve been hoping and waiting for’

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Chit-chatting with reporters for the first time since prior to the NHL’s trade deadline, stalwart netminder Jacob Markstrom was understandably uninterested in revisiting the speculation about his future with the Calgary Flames.

“It’s been a relief not talking to you guys,” Markstrom said with a playful grin. “We look forward now.”

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Looking forward is exactly what the C of Red has been doing.

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Looking forward, that is, to seeing more of prized puck-stopping prospect Dustin Wolf.

Looking forward to what the Flames’ goaltender-of-the-future could be capable of.

We now know that Wolf will be spending the rest of this season at the big-league level.

While Markstrom returned to practice Thursday after missing a four-game chunk with a lower-body injury, the Flames announced that backup twine-minder Dan Vladar has been shut down due a hip issue that has been bothering him for quite some time. Vladar will undergo surgery next week.

The 22-year-old Wolf stressed that “you never want to see a guy go down to injury,” but this is the sort of extended NHL audition that he has been waiting for. He will remain on emergency recall before eventually rejoining the AHL’s Wranglers for their playoff push.

“That’s exactly what it is — it’s a good opportunity for myself to be in this locker room and to be around these guys for the next month and hopefully more,” said Wolf, who won two of his three starts during Markstrom’s latest injury absence, defeating the Vegas Golden Knights and Montreal Canadiens before getting the Alex Ovechkin experience in Monday’s loss to the Washington Capitals. “Obviously, this is the place I want to be, as much as I possibly can. I’ve been up and down a lot all year, so there hasn’t been a whole lot of time to adjust to where my feet are at.

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“This is definitely the opportunity I’ve been hoping and waiting for. Now is the chance to take advantage of it.”

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The plan is Markstrom will be between the pipes for Saturday’s showdown with the Canucks in Vancouver (8 p.m. MT, CBC/Sportsnet 960 The Fan), but you can expect to see plenty of Wolf over the final 14 games on the schedule.

How exactly the Flames divvy up crease duties will likely depend on how long they can remain relevant in the Western Conference wildcard race. As Markstrom put it: “We can’t really look that much further … We have to win this game Saturday and then see what the other teams do.”

“He’s shown everyone that he can stop the puck and he’s playing great hockey for years now,” Markstrom said of his new crease counterpart — a guy who is 12 years younger, six inches shorter and has 450-some fewer starts at the top level. “Obviously, I know the transition. It’s a different game. It takes time. For me, it took almost 10 years to kind of figure everything out. You have to play games to get better and learn, and I think he’s been doing great when he comes in here and plays.”

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Calgary Flames vs. Vegas Golden Knights
Calgary Flames goaltender Dustin Wolf moves to block a play by Vegas Golden Knights forward Pavel Dorofeyev at the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary on Thursday, March 14, 2024. Photo by Brent Calver /Postmedia

For the next four weeks, Wolf is excited about the opportunity to job-shadow a former Vezina Trophy finalist.

There are some who believe that Markstrom, who ranks among the league leaders in goals saved above expected, should be once again be shortlisted for that award.

“He’s a world-class goaltender for a reason,” Wolf said. “He is, in my mind, probably Top-5 in the league and the way he handles himself off the ice is super important and I think that’s a big reason why he has played so long in this league and I’m sure he’ll play many more years. I’m super excited to be around him each and every day for the next month and kind of pick apart his game and see what works well for him. Granted, I don’t have the structure that he does, but try to learn as much as I can.

“He makes sure he comes to the rink, makes sure his body is in the right condition and obviously it shows on the ice, because he’s been outstanding out there. And now I get to watch it from close up.”

Jacob Markstrom
Jacob Markstrom of the Calgary Flames takes a break during a stop in play against the Vegas Golden Knights. Ethan Miller/Getty Images

That sort of internship will not only benefit Wolf, the AHL’s two-time goalie-of-the-year, but should benefit an organization in the early stages of a retool.

Markstrom, who is signed through the end of the 2025-26 campaign at an annual cap hit of US$6 million, will certainly be subject to more trade rumours this summer. Whether the Flames are willing to shop their go-to goaltender might depend on if Wolf, who turns 23 next month, can capitalize on this extended opportunity to erase any doubt that he is ready for primetime.

“We gotta look forward now,” Markstrom repeated after Thursday’s practice. “Everyone in this room is gonna be here now. I have a contract for two more years, and I’m just excited to be back playing.”

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