Jacob Markstrom Forcing Vancouver Canucks Hand

In a year full of good news for the Vancouver Canucks, the brilliant performance of goalie Jacob Markstrom is sending fans into a spin. The better he does will force the Canucks into making difficult decisions in regards to their goaltending position in the near future.

Lousy Great News

There’s a lot that’s gone right this season for the Vancouver Canucks. New arrival J.T. Miller performing at a career-high pace. Quinn Hughes is among the scoring leaders for defencemen and a strong contender for the Calder trophy. Elias Pettersson shows no sign of the dreaded Sophomore Slump.

And then there’s Jacob Markstrom.

Markstrom has been, repeatedly, the team’s MVP this season. It’s not just that the Canucks have been outshot – around 200 more shots against than for so far – but the quality of those shots has been high. Not a week goes by without teammates and media praising him for holding them in games.

In 2018-19 Markstrom finished in the top-10 for point shares – the number of points a team gains by his play alone. This year he’s likely going to end up in the top-5.

Patience Pays Off

It’s an evolution that’s been a long time coming, and plenty of time where it was doubtful to ever happen. He was the major return for the trade that sent away the best goalie in Vancouver’s history, so the pressure was on immediately. Amazingly, Markstrom cleared waivers soon after joining the Canucks to hone his game in the AHL. Vancouver brought in veteran Ryan Miller to stabilize the position and eventually to act as a mentor. It would be a few years before Markstrom was one of the Canucks goalie options. He returned focussed and ready for the NHL, serving as a backup for two years before being handed the reins.

It’s worth remembering that Jacob Markstrom was 28 years old before he was a number one goaltender, and had signed what is now a bargain three year deal at $3.67 million. He got some attention for the Vezina trophy last year, finishing tenth in voting. That’s just a preview of the attention he’ll get this year, especially if he leads the Canucks to the playoffs.

That deal has run its course, and now he’s set to become an unrestricted free agent at 30 years old. This is probably his only chance to score a big deal, and he’s not likely to go short-term as a favor to Vancouver.

The Jacob Markstrom Conundrum

Most obviously, there’s a risk signing any hockey player as they go into their thirties. In many cases, the player who gets a deal then are playing for teams that think they need him for his skills at their peak. The drop-off that happens later? Teams tolerate that as part of the cost. It’s those first few, best years that will hopefully push them over the top to a Stanley Cup.

And that’s not a position the Canucks are in. They’re not even particularly close – at least not within a couple of years or a couple of players.

Based on his play, Jacob Markstrom could reach $5.5 million per year, or even higher if he accepted a short deal. But why would he accept, say, a two-year deal and risk either his numbers dropping or losing his starting position to current backup Thatcher Demko? He also wants stability, so might take slightly less in a longer-term deal… if it includes expansion draft protection.

Which brings up the Seattle Somethings.

There likely won’t be a great selection of Canucks skaters available to the new team. If, however, there is a choice of goalies between a signed veteran who can handle a shooting gallery or a younger potential star? One of them is going to go.

Vancouver will need to expose an experienced goaltender and is also only allowed to protect one. If Markstrom and Demko are both in town, one of them will be exposed in the 2021 expansion draft. Markstrom on a long-term deal wants the stability of a no-move clause in exchange for a lower price. Jacob Markstrom on a short-term deal will have a high price, but won’t be available as an exposed veteran. And neither player nor team will be happy with that.

What’s to Be Done?

There are choices to pick between for management. All of them have risks, and none of them are going to be particularly easy. We’ll go over a few of the Canucks’ goalie options here.

Option #1: Keep Jacob Markstrom and Thatcher Demko Long Term

Yes, he is 30 years old and will be looking for a deal in the five- or six-year range. But is that actually as much of a risk as it is for most players? As mentioned, Jacob Markstrom only recently became Vancouver’s starter, so he hasn’t played that many games. He’s been in 160 over the past three years, but only 59 in the two years before that when he was backing up Miller.

Goaltenders are also known to reach their best later than skaters do. If the price for Markstrom is reasonable enough, then by the time his skills go into decline it won’t be as painful. Plus, he will be mentoring a younger, price-controlled goalie coming up. But he won’t sign a cheaper deal just to get drafted away by Seattle. A deal is going to have to be struck to protect the Canucks’ top goalies from getting picked.

That upcoming goalie is, of course, Demko. In three years, Demko will be 27 – one year younger than when Markstrom took over as the starter. That’s worked out pretty well for him. For the folks who say Demko is a more vaunted talent, remember that Markstrom spent a couple of years as “the best player not in the NHL” which is pretty hard to top. This one is probably the most likely of all the Canucks’ goalie options listed here.

Option #2: Keep Jacob Markstrom Short-Term, Thatcher Demko Long-Term

As vaunted as Demko is, right now the best chance the Canucks have of making the playoffs is with Markstrom. And not just for this year. The playoffs are viable for the next few years, and possibly beyond. Demko can grow to take the position, and when he’s there Markstrom can seek another deal.

For this to work, Markstrom will have to be confident his play will remain strong enough to get his big deal later. To do that, he’ll want not only more money now, but protection against going anywhere else. That means a no-movement clause, giving him complete control when he once again becomes an unrestricted free agent.

Again, some kind of deal would have to be struck with Seattle to shelter Demko from expansion.

Option #3: Trade Jacob Markstrom Now

Jacob Markstrom’s value will likely never be higher than now. The Philadelphia Flyers are at the edge of the playoffs by scoring their way out of trouble. What would they pay for a considerable upgrade over Carter Hart and Brian Elliott? James Reimer and Petr Mrazek have both benefited greatly from the Carolina Hurricanes defense. How would Markstrom do there?

Elliott or Reimer would likely be coming back, leaving Vancouver with a seasoned veteran to pair with Demko. The same’s true of any other deal for Markstrom, as often to balance the cap space as to gain a player. Getting the veteran in return would be a buffer in case Demko falters – he has fewer than 30 NHL games under his belt, after all.

If another deal could be made, there’s the chance Zane McIntyre comes up to support the newly-anointed starter. Given how close the playoffs are, that seems unlikely, though not as unlikely as Michael DiPietro making a return. DiPietro should stay to finish the season in Utica, plus enough games by McIntyre and he will qualify as the veteran to be exposed in expansion.

Option #4: Trade Thatcher Demko

If the Canucks trust that Markstrom will be able to maintain this level of play for another five years, why not keep him? They have a very good starter and can bring in cheaper options from free agency. Continue that for two or three seasons until DiPietro is hopefully ready to join the NHL. There’s the veteran acting as a mentor for a price-controlled rookie.

Demko’s value is going to be high: 18 of his 26 career starts have been high quality. While his deal expires next year, he remains a restricted free agent and under control of the team. He is only 24 years old and has been a top prospect for several years. Any teams looking to their near future would inquire if he comes available.

Option #5: Do Nothing

This is not the best of the Canucks’ goalie options, but it is one. Markstrom’s great play has been a prime reason Vancouver is in playoff position this late into the year. There are far worse options than going into the second season relying on him. See how far he can take the team and worry about re-signing him before July 1st.

Definitely the choice that would get the most attention. The fans and media in Vancouver are well known for their low panic threshold, so this would make for some lively airwaves.
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