Since James Reimer was traded away in 2016, the Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t developed a notable hometown goaltending prospect to pick up the reins.
In the six drafts from 2014-2018, the Maple Leafs selected 48 players, of which only three were goaltenders. Admittedly, Zach Bouthillier was a total flyer selection in the seventh round, and the retirement of Ian Scott — who dealt with chronic injury issues throughout his abbreviated pro career — is a sad and unfortunate story.
Selected 62nd overall in the 2016 draft, Joseph Woll — the third of the trio and the highest goaltending draft pick by Toronto since a certain Tuukka Rask in 2005 — remains with the organization despite loads of trials and tribulations.
At 24 years of age, Woll is in the first season of his third contract signed with Toronto despite his average-looking body of work to this point. Before the start of the current campaign, injuries limited Woll to 66 games over three seasons, and four of those starts were in the NHL last season when Petr Mrazek was out due to injury.
With options to select from at the time, the fact that Leafs brass opted to give Woll a look at that stage tells us how highly he is regarded by management and the coaching staff even despite the small body of work and average numbers.
No doubt, heading into this campaign, Woll’s AHL statistics did not make for flattering reading with a record of 24-30-3, a .893 save percentage, and a 3.55 goals against average. But statistics can often be misleading, particularly when it comes to goaltending development, where a patient and bigger-picture outlook is often necessary.
After taking over from Sheldon Keefe, Greg Moore has been the head coach for the majority of Woll’s AHL career to date. Under Moore, the Marlies have largely been a poor defensive team — no more evident than last season when Toronto failed to qualify for the postseason and allowed 244 goals in a 72-game schedule, the largest number of goals conceded since the 2009-10 campaign when the regular season was 80 games long.
It’s fair to say that expectations were low coming into this season. Woll suffered a shoulder injury in March, endured some struggles with rehabilitation after surgery, and there was a further setback due to an ankle injury.
With Erik Källgren and Keith Petruzzelli performing well and promising prospects Artur Akhtyamov, Vyacheslav Peksa, and Dennis Hildeby now in the pipeline, Woll was something of an afterthought for many outside onlookers entering 2022-23.
Since returning on November 25, though, Woll has firmly put himself back in the mix as a credible NHL option to the point where he arguably sits in the pole position for the next big-club call-up. There has been a dramatic turnaround in his statistics, albeit in a small body of work: a perfect 6-0 record, 2.0 goals against average, and .935 save percentage are clearly elite numbers in the AHL this season.
And if anything, those numbers don’t do Woll enough justice. The Marlies have dressed one of the youngest defensive cores in the club’s history this season, a group that includes six rookies. Not one player on the current roster to have played a game this season is over the age of 24.
Naturally, with inexperience comes growing pains in the form of defensive breakdowns and missed assignments. Excellent goaltending to cover up for those warts is a huge asset that can help young players remain confident enough to continue to make plays without fear of costing the team games.
In the most recent win against Belleville, the Marlies were firmly on the back foot in the opening frame, but Woll turned aside 17 shots in the first period, including nine from high-danger scoring areas. The Marlies built off his performance with a three-goal outburst in the middle frame to eventually win the game. Belleville scored twice, but both were power-play tallies, including one 6-on-3 goal late in the game.
In fact, of the 12 goals Woll has allowed this season, only seven have come during five-on-five action. At the time of writing, the American netminder has given up just one even-strength goal through his last two starts.
His calmness and composure between the pipes have provided a reassuring presence for a young Marlies blue line. He isn’t a goaltender who scrambles or is forced into spectacular saves as his positioning is generally very sound — he makes excellent use of his large frame — but he has the athleticism to make the desperation save when needed.
“Since my time here, there has been tremendous growth [in Woll],” said Greg Moore. “He is a very athletic goalie, and he sometimes relied on that athleticism to make saves. Sometimes, it could feel a little all over the place. Now, he is so controlled. He is working a great system. His skating is strong, and now he only uses his athleticism to bail him out of a situation. He gives us a very calm presence back there, which a team always plays well in front of.”
With so few games under his belt relatively speaking, there is room for further growth and development in Woll’s game, health permitting. Toronto’s goaltenders at the NHL level have a lot to prove this season in regard to their injury history and/or recent track records, and neither is signed to a contract beyond 2023-24. A third goaltender — specifically one on the right side of 25 and firmly on the upswing — is exactly what is needed on the organization’s depth chart.
A sustained run of good health will need to be at the top of his 2023 wishlist, but Woll is providing legitimate hope that the future answer in the Leafs‘ crease won’t depend entirely on free agency or the trade market.