Our first goaltender on the list is one of our most punnable prospects, and was getting scored on by Auston Matthews before it was cool. Joseph Woll was the first goalie drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs since Antoine Bibeau in 2013. A native of Dardenne Prairie, Missouri, Woll grew up outside of St. Louis and played for the St. Louis AAA Blues U16 team.
Like several entries in this year’s Top 25, he is a product of the US National Team Development Program. He was successful with the NTDP, and went into the 2016 draft ranked fifth among North American goaltenders by NHL Central Scouting. The Maple Leafs selected him in the third round of last year’s draft, 62nd overall. Thanks to a July birthday, he was drafted before he’d played a season in the NCAA. That made this season a test for him; how would he do with the step up from the NTDP to college hockey? Good numbers in U18s are one thing, good numbers in the NCAA are quite another.
Woll didn’t make our top 25 last year, but since then he’s had a successful freshman season at Boston College and a great, if brief, performance for the US at the World Junior Hockey Championships. With that behind him, he debuts on our list tied for 25th.
In his draft year, Woll played 33 games for the US National Under-18 team, and posted a respectable 0.918 sv% and 2.14 GAA. As a member of the national team, he competed in the under-18 World Junior Championships, splitting the crease with his NTDP teammate Jake Oettinger. Woll played in three games and got one shutout, good for a bronze medal for the US.
Woll entered college at a fortuitous time—Boston College’s starter for the past three years, Thatcher Demko, had just gone pro after getting tired of breaking school records. This left the starting job wide open for Woll to take, and he won it free and clear, playing 34 games for BC as a freshman. Among freshman NCAA goalies countrywide (with >20 games), Woll ranked 9th in sv% and 11th in GAA.
Boston College as a team had a rather disappointing season, finishing third in the conference and missing out on the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009. It wasn’t for lack of trying on Woll’s part, including a spectacular 42-save performance in the Hockey East semifinals against Boston University to drag Boston College to the championship game. He made the Hockey East All-Rookie team and the Hockey East Honorable Mention All-Star Team, and all in all had a perfectly good year.
In a much smaller sample size, Woll also had a nice showing as backup at World Juniors this year. He started in two games, against Slovakia and Canada, and looked sharp in both of them. His performance against Canada was particularly impressive; in the annual round-robin USA vs Canada matchup, Woll only allowed one goal on 26 shots against the eventual silver medalists.
I penciled Woll in at the bottom of my rankings almost immediately, eventually settling on putting him 25th. I was encouraged by his performance this season and wanted him on my list, but he simply hasn’t shown enough at a high enough level to rank higher. That area of the rankings formed a strong consensus—the highest Woll was ranked was 23rd, by Acha, Scott Wheeler, and Jared, while El Seldo and Gunnar left him off their rankings entirely. For Gunnar, at least, it was a question of current value: does Woll’s potential, at his current level, outweigh the proven value of a goalie like Garret Sparks, who is a starting goalie in the AHL? Whether Woll will reach even that level is still an open-ended question.
El Seldo, who also left Woll unranked, had this to say:
"Ian Scott vs Woll comes down to one looking much better on paper than the other. Scott plays in the CHL where goalies tend to have bad looking numbers and play behind young defense. In my opinion NCAA goalie numbers look better, and they play behind older defence. They're probably developing at the same rate but it's harder to see on the page."
Evaluating the relative competitiveness across leagues is tricky business; in the same way that not all CHL leagues are weighted at the same level of difficulty, neither are all NCAA conferences. Boston College as a team was younger and not as stacked with first-round talent as some other teams in Hockey East, and their defense was a definite point of weakness. Woll’s stats might not have looked as shiny as some other freshman goaltenders, but he was put in a position of doing more work.
The way I looked at it, Woll took a step—he went through his first season in the NCAA and met the challenge. Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that a .913 sv% is spectacular, even for the men’s NCAA, but it’s certainly not bad for a freshman. Rating a 19-year-old goalie is peering far into the future, even when it comes to prospects (goalies are voodoo, nobody should trust teenagers, all that), but Woll was tossed into a starting goalie role on a team with not-great defense and didn’t sink. Sometimes, staying afloat is progress in and of itself.
The next sign will be how he performs in his sophomore year. I’m hoping for another step forward, and an improvement in his stats, now that he has a NCAA season under his belt.