Peterborough Petes goaltender Dylan Wells, the Edmonton Oilers fifth-round (123rd-overall) draft pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, is far more mature than his age indicates. The 18-year-old understands those details of the role.
For the past two seasons, Wells served as the backup netminder for the Petes, riding a learning curve that hasn't necessarily been linear. He was meant to take over the starting position for the Petes last season, but wasn't given the opportunity. His Ontario Hockey League (OHL) traditional stats - including save percentage and goals against average - haven't always been glamorous, and yet he's still considered one of the best goalies in the league. The 6-foot-2 goalie finally claimed the starting position in Peterborough this season, already collecting praise from his coaches.
"He's a professional," said Jody Hull, head coach of the Petes. "He's got a quiet confidence about him, but not cocky."
"He's a great kid; he's a professional," said Assistant and Goalie Coach Andrew Verner, who was also a goaltender drafted by Oilers. "He's a leader here."
Wells' occupancy of the starting job in Peterborough begins with practice.
"The effort you put in and what you do everyday on a daily basis in practice is going to translate into game situations, and you realize that when you're playing every night," said Wells. "This year, I've just been going into every practice and hoping to give it my 100 percent. Hopefully it transitions into the game and I've been feeling pretty confident with my game right now, so I'm happy with it."
The young goaltender has every right to be happy with his play. In 19 games this OHL season, Wells sports a .915 save percentage and a 3.14 goals against average. 670 shots have been fired his way, and 613 of them have been denied, placing him second in the league in both respects. Wells is one of the busiest goalies in the OHL, also evidenced by his 1090 minutes played.
Although, those numbers don't tell the whole story of Wells' body of work.
When tracking shot quality against and other advanced statistics, the Peterborough coaches come away impressed with Wells.
"The advanced stats showed, I think, what he was dealing with on most nights, as far as number of shots and the quality of those shots," said Verner. "That doesn't slip past us here. We know we rely on him heavily to maybe do a little bit more than some of the other goalies in the league."
Verner notes Wells' ability to square up as one of his most noticeable improvements between the pipes. It is based on his own observation, however.
"A lot more pucks are hitting him, especially what I call a 'second-tier scoring chance' not that 'grade A' chance, but not from the blueline, either," explained Verner.
For Verner, the numbers have reaffirmed the eye test this season. Wells, however, doesn't dwell on the numbers anyway. It's about the team's success.
"I didn't want to look at my stats at all this year," he said. "You can't pay too much attention to your stats, and if you're constantly checking them, you're trying to maintain them all the time, you're always worrying about it. Obviously it's a pretty good feat, but wins are all that matter at this point, so I'm going to focus on that."
Wells seeks leading his team to success, and that will be dictated by the amount of wins his Petes compile. In order for his middle-of-the-pack team to flourish, though, Wells' on-ice performance is paramount. He's aware of this, and draws influence from some of the sharpest sets of eyes and coolest heads in the National Hockey League as models for his own play.
When it comes to goalie composure in the NHL, Carey Price's temperament is the precedent. The Montreal Canadiens goalie keeps a level head at all times, not letting his emotions get the best of him when he allows a goal, or when the Habs lose a game - no matter how seldom that may be.
"I think he emulates an ideal goalie," Wells said. "Everything he has, whether it's his calmness or just the confidence he possesses in the net is something that everybody looks up to."
As for puck tracking, preparation and focus, the eagle eyes of Braden Holtby illustrate the standard to Wells. Holtby's been known to quiz his readiness, as seen when he grabs his water bottle from the top of the net, squirts it in the air, and locks onto a single droplet of water with his eyes until it falls to the ice. It's an exercise meant to keep him sharp throughout a game.
"When you think about it and kind of break it down with the water bottle thing, it does make sense," said Wells, who admits to having his own similar technique. "You realize that as a goalie that you really need to just learn to keep your mind set in a steady place throughout the game, you can't have your mind wandering or anything too much. Just a little thing like that to keep you dialed into a game works wonders for different goalies. When you can find something that suits your game, it's pretty helpful."
The little things, for goalies, are often the biggest deals. To Wells, the fine details of his game, he believes, will complement the concentration, preparation and demeanor he needs to make the NHL level.
"Transitioning your game to pro hockey from junior hockey is a pretty big step," he said. "The little things are the things that'll come back to bite you, whether it's your speed on the ice, or how quick you're reacting to plays, reading plays as they develop; everything is just a step ahead."
The St. Catharines native longs to turn pro, and noted the profound feeling of putting on an Oilers jersey at the draft. When he tried articulating the sensation of wearing an Oilers uniform at the Young Stars Classic in Penticton last September, he failed to find the words.
"Putting the jersey on at the draft was one thing, but actually putting it on and over equipment was something words can't really describe."
For now, Wells will continue cultivating the craft. He'll continue being a leader for the Petes, continue mastering his body and mind, and continue his attentiveness to the fine details of his game - like the true pro he is.