Joseph Woll has never played a pro hockey game and wasn’t going to see a second of NHL action.
And yet, the touted Toronto Maple Leafs goaltending prospect travelled, practised and trained with the big club for the final five weeks of the season, including the seven-game playoff series with Boston, riding the highs and lows up in the TD Garden pressbox with the Justin Holls and Nic Petans of the world.
A dream job-shadowing assignment presented by Kyle Dubas, and one that Woll leapt at.
“It was great being around the team and getting to know some the guys on a daily basis and seeing what they go through and how they prepare and meeting with the coaching staff and just kind of getting the feel for pro hockey,” says the 20-year-old NCAA star, who learned firsthand the grind he’ll be in for as a professional.
“You feel yourself progress even more when you’re getting the best players in the world shooting at you on a daily basis. It was a mix of being a little starstruck, being in this city with how historical it is and how special this team is, and then a mix of learning and taking everything in.
Woll, a happy-go-lucky Missouri kid with grand aspirations, was pleasantly surprised that Frederik Andersen, Garret Sparks and, later, Michael Hutchinson all welcomed him into the room with open arms.
“It can be weird having a new face around, but they were amazing — better than I expected. The whole team accepted me being there and kind of took me under their wing a little bit,” Woll says. “Both Freddy and Sparky were awesome to me when I first came in.”
Friend and fellow Leafs netminding hopeful Ian Scott, also 20, participated in a similar program during the Toronto Marlies’ run to the Calder Cup in 2018, squeezing into one AHL regular-season game but mostly just soaking up lessons from Garret Sparks and Calvin Pickard.
Just a taste. A tease of what could come.
Scott calls that mentorship “incredible” and believes the limited taste of professional life contributed to his stellar 2018-19 WHL-championship campaign with the Prince Albert Raiders, during which he posted a sparkling 38-8-2 record, with eight shutouts and a .932 save percentage.
“I was able to see the little things that made them successful and have such a great year, and I brought a lot of that back to Prince Albert,” Scott says. “Winning it all with the guys in the room — that’s something I’ll remember forever.”
The mentees roomed together at Leafs development camp and are set to battle for ice time in what should be a competitive Marlies camp this fall. (Between games, Woll will be finishing three online classes in order to complete his business degree from Boston University.)
“We’re both trying to make the Maple Leafs, obviously,” Woll says. “It’s competing on the ice, but it’s friendship off the ice — and I think that’s the way it should be.”
“We get along pretty well,” Scott adds.
Andersen, of course, is the top dog on Toronto’s goaltending depth chart, and has two more seasons at $5 million — half of Sergei Bobrovsky’s salary — before his bargain contract runs out.
Below him, things get muddy fast.
NHL backups Garret Sparks ($750,000) and Michael Hutchinson ($700,000) each re-signed for 2019-20 at or near the league minimum.
Sparks owned the No. 2 slot during what he described as an “emotionally taxing” season until, days prior to the Boston series, he suddenly didn’t.
The longest-tenured member of the organization is now reportedly available for trade and, unless Sparks can seize the gig back from Hutchinson, could end up on waivers.
The undrafted Kasimir Kaskisuo, 25, was a borderline ECHL netminder until last fall’s double departure of Pickard and Curtis McElhinney on the waiver wire thrust him to a starting role with the Marlies.
Despite posting just a .896 save percentage in 30 AHL regular-season appearances, the unsung Finn found his groove in the post-season, backstopping the Marlies to two playoff upsets.
So superb was Kaskisuo, Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe elected to start him over Hutchinson with the season on the line, but he too will enter 2019-20 on an expiring contract.
An opportunity for either or both of Woll and Scott to accelerate their climb up Toronto’s goaltending ladder appears wide open.
Turning pro is the immediate goal.
That’s why Scott isn’t taking any vacations this summer. That’s why Woll is back in St. Louis, taking reps with the community of pro shooters who train there in the summer.
Both prospects are tall (Scott is six-foot-three, Woll six-foot-four) and athletic netminders trying to add a touch more Andersen-style poise to their game.
“I like to play pretty active,” Scott says. “I have to work on slowing my game down a little bit, just being able to get the right angles and stuff.”
At the suggestion of Raiders head coach Marc Habscheid, Scott now sees a sports psychologist in addition to his goalie coaches and fitness coach back home in Calgary.
“That played a huge part this year, just being able to stay consistent and keep my confidence game in and game out,” says Scott, who has discovered techniques to remain calm and focus on the controllables when things go sideways. “It helped a lot.”
To be sure, Scott has taken notes from a fellow 20-year-old Alberta blue-chipper in pads. WHL grad Carter Hart excelled so well in his first pro year, he won the Flyers’ starting job by mid-season.
“Jumping straight to the NHL is pretty hard for any goalie. If anyone, it would be him to do it,” Scott says. “Just watching him play the past few years, he’s so calm and collected and confident. Obviously, I’d like to model my game after him.”
No one is taking Andersen’s spot, of course, but the grooming for the 29-year-old’s successor — whomever that may be — is about to get interesting.