This time last year, I was thrust into unfamiliar territory.
For the last four years, I’d covered the Arizona Coyotes. I’d always done freelance for the Leafs, because I was stuffed into a Leafs jersey before I even knew how to skate and I love making my family happy.
Then sites started making layoffs, I was cut from my Coyotes coverage, and I landed ass-over-ears in a one-year gig covering the Chicago Blackhawks.
It appears that every team I touch turns to dust, but we’ll hope I don’t ruin the Leafs by doing a single, solitary post paying homage to their next attempt at developing an American-born goaltender into something resembling an NHL starter.
Let’s chat about Joseph Woll for a moment.
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Lot of respect. One 20th, one unranked.
For a while, it looked like things were going south for the St. Louis native this year as Woll entered his sophomore campaign at Boston College.
The second-year starter had a mere .898 save percentage when the new year hit – and despite a struggling defence in front of him, it was still a red flag that he seemed to be taking such a significant step back statistically.
As the year went on, though, Woll’s numbers started to climb. He went from his sub-.900 save percentage and a 7-6-2 record through the first half of the year to a .915 save percentage in all situations by the time the year was over, elevating his game in his final 15 appearances to finish off on a high note.
A native of the St. Louis suburbs, Woll is one of the growing number of Missouri-born American prospects who is making his way to the big leagues. Although he has at least one more season of NCAA hockey left to play back in Boston, his ability to bounce back last year – to go with yet another Team USA appearance this past winter – gives fans good reason to believe he’ll be at the very least a capable AHL starter in the Leafs organization someday soon.
Most of you already know the drill, but Woll was drafted 62nd overall by the Leafs in 2016, and he’s one of the goaltenders American hockey is banking on for their next generation of success. He may be no Connor Hellebuyck, but there’s still plenty to like about having him in your system.
— Janik Beichler (@JanikBeichler) January 4, 2018
An American-born goaltender that got tabbed for Team USA long before he’d shown definitive proof that he’s capable of making it big-time? That’s never been a problem for the Leafs before!
Now that we’ve gotten in our requisite Sparks chirp, though, time to get serious.
Woll is, in theory, following in the footsteps of fellow Team USA/Boston College product Thatcher Demko; he’s working with goaltending coach Mike Ayers both on the national team and during his NCAA season.
While the two are far from similar on the ice, though, Demko is a decent comparable when it comes to what sort of a path we might see Woll need to take in order to hit the NHL. Like his BC predecessor, Woll’s biggest asset is his confidence in his style; he doesn’t regress into sloppy habits and he remains consistent in his game, even though he’s got a much narrower butterfly and more upright, edgework-based slant to his game than Demko.
Like the California-based Canucks prospect, Woll will need to take that confidence and apply it to his timing at the pro levels, likely starting with a few seasons of AHL play before moving up (we can hope) to the NHL. While he’s a reasonably conservative netminder depth-wise, his narrower stance and crisper positioning make fluid lateral movement a little bit more difficult to achieve. When he gives up a poorly-placed rebound or a puck gets redirected, his ability to recover and make that desperation save is a little bit clunkier than it is for more agile movers like Demko.
If Leafs fans want a decent comparable style-wise, Woll likely projects to play a similar game to Martin Jones out in San Jose. He’s not overly flexible (what the youths like to call “athletic”, as if there are still goaltenders out there shaped like Turk Broda) but has a good sense of awareness within the blue paint, so you’ll rarely catch him wildly out of position.
He’s not the most prolific of puck-handlers, either, much like Jones – but in case you’ve missed the Western Conference games over the last few years, the San Jose starter’s minimalist movements have served him pretty well. If that’s the ceiling for Woll, it’s a pretty decent one to hope for.
I say this as a half-American and a goalie: Team USA’s goaltending pipeline is a hot mess.
Keep that in mind when examining Woll’s numbers, and look at them with a grain of salt here; the US National Development Program plays a lot of game designed to push them, a good chunk of NCAA games and international tournaments, and obviously see a lot of turnover due to age. The ‘best’ players at each age group aren’t always the players in net, and the mismatches for the young defenders can make for a stressful season for the goaltenders.
Woll has done all right since hitting college, though, managing to at the very least finish out both years with consistent-looking stats despite some stumbles here and there. And while his performance at the World Juniors last year wasn’t the best one we’ve ever seen, he did just fine the year prior and there’s little reason to look at his stats over his career thus far as any kind of a huge red flag.
2018-19 Season Outlook
It’s college hockey, so quite literally anything can happen.
Keep an eye on how Woll manages to kick off his season, though. After his slow start last year, the Leafs will want to see that he can come out of the gate with good numbers.
Boston’s goaltending depth chart will see all three guys from the 2017-18 season return, with Ian Milosz coming back as a senior and Ryan Edquist as a junior like Woll. Only Edquist and Woll appeared in net for the Eagles last year, and the Lakeville, Minnesota native that served as Woll’s number two last year is likely his biggest competition this year as well. With a .916 save percentage last year and a .923 the year before (albeit in just 17 combined games), he’s shown an ability to hold down the fort when he gets a start. It’s not likely that he’ll edge Woll, but it’s worth keeping an eye on just in case.