If a professional hockey player can find light shining into a pandemic cave, it’s family time in spring.
“It’s the first time I’ve been home in St. Louis in March since I was 15 or so,” Toronto Maple Leafs goaltending prospect Joseph Woll says over the phone. “We have a pretty good yard, so we’ve been playing a lot of family games in our backyard. We’re pretty big into Wiffleball and volleyball and stuff in our backyard, so it’s been fun like being able to stay competitive a little bit.”
Deboarding the roller coaster that was a rickety Toronto Marlies campaign and a challenging first year as a pro has granted Woll precious time to unwind, to read, to golf, to tinker on the family piano (he’s self-taught) and bump beats from his favourite DJ/producers, Kygo and Avicii.
The 21-year-old Boston College alum had been warned of the grueling 76-game pro grind. His body was ready for the game to race at him faster, for the attackers to make smarter decisions with the puck, and all those in-game refinements when you move up a level.
“The biggest change for me was just mentally, how quick turnarounds are,” Woll explains. In the NCAA, he’d play Friday and Saturday, then have the week to study and practice. Pro life jerked Woll out of his routine.
“That was eye-opening to me in the beginning, just the randomness of the schedule and obviously you’re playing a lot more games, so it’s a little bit different mindset.
“Just how quickly things can change and dealing with adversity,” Woll elaborates. “That’s the first time in my career I’ve dealt with something in that regard, I would say. So just a lot of learning how to bounce back from bad games and then also not let your good games affect you too much, to where you stay even-keeled.”
Like the Marlies in front of him, Woll wrestled with consistency over the winter, going 11-16-3 with an .880 save percentage. He leaned on tandem mates Kasimir Kaskisuo and, especially, Michael Hutchinson for mentorship. He worked closely with Marlies goalie guru Jon Elkin on technique, a training that has persevered regularly through quarantine.
“Me and my little brother have been working out in our basement for the past however long. We found a lot of stuff around the house that can be used as exercise equipment, so it’s been kind of fun,” Woll says.
Mimicking their parent club, the 2019-20 Marlies underwent a sea of roster turnover and a jarring coaching change. Injuries to the Leafs’ blueline meant recalls of AHL studs Rasmus Sandin, Timothy Liljegren and Martin Marincin, which is turn made it harder on the guys in pads.
“As the season unfolded, I think it’s fair to say that our goaltending was up and down,” Marlies GM Laurence Gilman says. “We think we have a very good young, up-and-coming goaltender in Joe Woll.”
During Woll’s exit interview, Gilman reminded the 2016 third-round pick that goalies need longer to develop than position players, but once they break through, they often sick around longer.
Seventy-eight per cent of the 87 goalies who played an NHL game this season are 25 or older. Carter Hart and Ilya Samsonov are exceptions, not the norm.
“By and large, I think we’re happy with what we have in the pipeline, but like any franchise, you can never have enough goaltending,” Gilman says. “Like pitching in baseball.”
Marlies leading scorer Kenny Agostino roomed with Woll on the road, and the two bonded over dinners. Woll arrived to the organization unassuming, appreciative, and respectful. Yet a confidence lives in the quiet.
Agostino loves Woll’s sense of humour and is impressed by his smarts.
“He really managed his first year as a professional as well as I’ve seen a rookie handle it,” Agostino says. “I think the sky’s the limit for him as a goaltender.”
High praise considering, by Woll’s own assessment, his performance was up and down.
So, why is Agostino so bullish on the kid?
“‘Roller coaster season’ is probably fair for a rookie, especially a rookie goaltender on a team that was very volatile in terms of consistency with our play,” Agostino says.
“But the longer you play, you sort of have a gauge of raw abilities and talent, and I think he’s such a talented goaltender. One of my favourite things was the shootouts and breakaways against him in practice, because I could never figure him out,” Agostino enthuses.
“You could just see his raw talent, and he’s only gonna get better. I think he’s a goalie you could see a huge jump between first and second year in terms of consistency. Again, I think just his mentality: he’s a very mature kid, a very smart kid, and that goes a long way, especially in your first and second year pro.”
For Woll, the trick now is wrapping his head around when his second year will even begin. The world isn’t safe for full arenas, and the American League can’t survive off broadcast dollars alone.
“Yeah, it’s a difficult thing,” Woll says. “A lot of unknown. I think you just have to approach it with the mindset of just getting better.
“More time off is just more time to prepare. So I can really take a step back and look at things I need to focus on.
“I trust the league and everything to make the best decision on how their players will advance and continue to develop. So, I’m just going to do my job and make sure that I’m prepared.”
The prospect was asked by Kyle Dubas to travel back up north and serve as a black ace for the Maple Leafs’ return-to-play efforts this summer, as the NHL is permitting teams to carry an unlimited number of goalies on expanded rosters.
Post-quarantine, Woll will be there, standing in for William Nylander’s target practice, soaking up pucks and experience, as he was in 2019 during the Bruins series. The learning opportunity is too great to pass up for a talent the organization believes in.
“It’s something I’d love to have the opportunity to do, so I’ve just been working out and preparing like I would,” Woll says.
“Just the experience is the biggest thing, being around a winning culture and a playoff culture and seeing how the guys go about their daily routines in one of the biggest high-pressure situations in sports. It was an unbelievable experience last year, and hopefully this year, just being around some of the best players in the world and seeing how an organization as amazing as Toronto approaches something I’ve always dreamed about participating in.”