Lukas Dostal should not be playing in the National Hockey League right now, but thanks to injuries to both John Gibson and Anthony Stolarz, he’s not only found himself manning an NHL net but thriving in the process. The 22-year old began the season with the San Diego Gulls of the American Hockey League, where he has been slowly developing for the last couple of seasons as Anaheim’s prized goaltending prospect. Yet with the All-Star Gibson still in the midst of a multi-year deal, the possibility of Dostal getting any NHL action, let alone extended time, seemed to depend on either injuries or a potential Stolarz trade, who is in the last year of his contract.
Dostal re-announced himself to the hockey world with an “instant classic” type of performance against the Edmonton Oilers, where he stopped 46 of 49 shots en route to victory. However, what separates the great goaltenders from the merely good is consistency, not flash. NHL history is littered with goalies who have gotten hot for short stretches, and eventually, come crashing back down to earth. The Czech netminder has already shown an impressive level of consistency in the AHL, posting a healthy .916 save percentage in each of the three seasons he’s played there, including the current campaign.
Against the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday night, Dostal showed that he may very well be able to replicate his AHL consistency in the NHL. In a game where the Ducks had a solid start, but badly faded down the stretch, Dostal was called upon to keep his team in the game, and he delivered. The former third-round pick stopped 37 of 41 shots, a figure which doesn’t quite rise to the “single-handedly winning a game” category, but kept Anaheim afloat in the face of numerous dangerous opportunities. Ultimately, that’s all any team can really ask of its goalie on any given night, much less a team as defensively challenged as the 2022-23 Ducks.
On a first period penalty kill, the Kings managed to work the puck cross-ice to their talented shooter, Arthur Kaliyev. Dostal, though, was up to that initial challenge:
Notice how calmly Dostal is able to stop Kaliyev’s one-time blast. That calmness is no accident: Dostal perfectly reads the situation and gets across the passing lane almost before Kaliyev even gets the puck, allowing him to adjust his body position to make the save. In an ideal world, Dostal also manages to control the rebound, but in an NHL that is so dominated by cross-ice actions on the power play, the ability to make the initial save here is the bigger key.
In the second period, Dostal would continue to demonstrate this calm brand of goaltending, this time on a partial breakaway from Adrian Kempe:
Here, Kempe is trying to move Dostal off of the strong side post by shifting to his backhand, so that he can wrist the puck home against the grain by returning to his forehand. Dostal cannot assume that Kempe will attempt to cut back, and has to honor the backhand option, while not completely abandoning the post. He does this expertly, getting the pads down to seal off the backhand option.
However, when Kempe cuts back to the forehand, Dostal’s hands are still free, and he’s able to use his blocker to steer away Kempe’s bid. Arguably, Kempe had Dostal beaten here, as the goaltender’s weight was clearly shifting to the middle, but he did not over-commit to the point of no return. He struck the right balance of honoring the initial move, while not completely compromising himself. That kind of poise for a goaltender is hard to achieve, let alone for a 22-year old just breaking in to the NHL.
Again in the middle frame, Dostal would come up large, this time denying a Grade A scoring chance as the Ducks attempted to kill off yet another penalty:
Here, he once again blends quick movements with poise. The puck gets down to the goal-mouth from the point, and he quickly gets seals the ice to prevent a quick re-direction. Even though the Kings likely never intended to shoot off of that initial action, Dostal cannot assume that. Then, the puck gets one-touched out to the inner slot, resulting in a glorious one-time chance. Dostal has next to no time to react here, having already gone down from the initial pass. He flashes elite reflexes where a smooth, prepared save isn’t available, flashing the left pad, with his head following the puck the whole way through.
The head movement shows how well he’s tracking the puck, a major factor in allowing him to make such a split-second save from a dangerous area. Perhaps a goalie coach might not want to see him commit so aggressively to the initial pass, but Anaheim’s defensive positioning is so bad here that Dostal almost has to honor every option, not being able to fully trust the penalty killers in front of him. On the night, Dostal finished with a positive goals-saved above expected according to Evolving Hockey (+0.36 GSAx), showing that he stopped more than what would have been expected based on the types of shots he faced.
Now, Dostal has only played in five games so far. So to say that he’s ready to take the starter’s role even with a healthy Gibson in tow is clearly premature. However, Stolarz is a pending UFA, and could very well be moved by the trade deadline, so what happens to Dostal then? Does he benefit from largely being a backup to Gibson down the stretch? If the Ducks were at all considering hanging on to Stolarz through the end of the season, their young call-up’s recent play must at least give them some pause. He’s not only surviving, he’s thriving.
Gibson was an All-Star last season, but the heavy workload in recent years has taken a toll on his ability to maintain that level of play over the course of the season. Meanwhile, Anaheim has never seemed fully willing to trust Stolarz to be more of a tandem goalie, as opposed to a pure backup. With the way Dostal is playing in the NHL, and the way he’s handled a higher starting load in the AHL, perhaps the franchise finally gets nudged to going towards more of a tandem approach. That way, they get the best of both worlds: a more rested, capable Gibson, and a rising Dostal. With Gibson on the books for four more years, Anaheim would be wise to find a way to maximize the $6.4 million annual cap hit it has in him. Of course, Dostal still has much to prove in the NHL, and all of this remains very much an open question. Even still, the Ducks’ young core is often characterized by bigger names up front and on the back end, yet Dostal is making a convincing case that the goaltending position is just as much of a reason to be optimistic about Anaheim’s future.