At the beginning of the 2019-20 season, there were a few questions for fans of the Vancouver Canucks. How will Quinn Hughes do in his rookie season? (Amazing!) Will Micheal Ferland be able to keep up with Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser? (No!) And can he get through a full season without another concussion? (Hoo, boy…) But the biggest question was one waiting for the team at the end of the season: what is going to happen with the Vancouver Canucks free agent goaltender? And you _know_ who we mean.
Vancouver Canucks Free Agent Goaltender
Our basic assumptions are these: no free-money buyouts; a flat cap; no trades during the draft or in the shortened off-season. Going by the omnipresent Cap Friendly, the Canucks will finish the season with just over $20.5 million in space, less around $2 million in bonus overages. We’re also assuming it’s $2.5 million lower than listed as well – that’s the cap staying flat rather than increasing to $84 million.
As if the pressure of keeping their best player isn’t enough? The Seattle Mysterians are joining the league for the 2021-22 season, meaning 31 teams need to prepare for the expansion draft. (You know you want to, Seattle!) Teams can only protect one goaltender, of course. Trickier is exposing one that is either signed or an RFA at the time of the draft in 2021. Last time, the Canucks extended Richard Bachman and protected Jacob Markstrom. Ryan Miller had reached the end of his deal, so couldn’t be exposed. This time?
Banging The Conundrum
When Markstrom was injured late last season, it provided a baptism by fire for the young Thatcher Demko. Hailed as the Goalie of the Future, Demko started well with a win against the Montreal Canadiens. After that, though, he went 2-4 through to the season’s pause. Opinion among fans is that he needs a bit more time before taking the starter’s role. Which would be fine, if Markstrom agreed to sign a one-year deal.
Which leaves two problems. First, the Canucks MVP wouldn’t qualify as the “exposed goalie” and they would have to get another under contract. Second, why on earth would he accept a one-year deal? He’s thirty years old now and has shown what he’s capable of as a starter over the past three years. This is his best chance to sign big numbers and big term.
He has said he wants to stay in town, which has to be music to most fan’s ears. He views the slowly improving team as an unfinished job and wants to be here when the Canucks finally become a regular playoff contender. In an ideal world, Markstrom would sign, say, a four-year deal. The transition between him and Demko would be smooth as he moved from starter to backup. His career ends just as Michael DiPietro is ready to play back up. Perfect! But won’t happen. Not easily, anyway.
So, how does the team avoid losing the veteran or the future starter in the expansion draft? They can only protect one, and frankly, the rest of the potentially exposed Canucks don’t look particularly tempting. Right now the best option for an expansion team is going to be one of their goalies. The problem with signing Markstrom, even to a longer deal, is that he knows as well as anyone else what the situation is. If he agrees to take a low price to fit in Vancouver’s cap budget it’ll be because he wants to be in Vancouver. Guaranteed he either has a no-move clause on any deal longer than a year or he’ll demand $6 million+. Work stability must be a serious temptation right now given the economic uncertainty. But he’s also justified in asking for a near-doubling of his current bargain price.
From the Canucks side, they love what Markstrom’s done for the team. They know perfectly well he’s the primary reason the playoffs are in reach this year. On the other hand, the team has been very patient in waiting for him to live up to his billing. It was four years and a trip to the minors – clearing waivers – before Markstrom took the place of the goaltender he was traded for. And they certainly don’t want to lose Demko to expansion – especially not to a team who is not just in their division but a virtual neighbour.
But what if the Canucks let Markstrom walk? Say they do with Louis Domingue what they did with Bachman last expansion draft. He’s signed on for two years at a salary they can bury in the minors letting them protect Demko. It would be… alarming if the team decided he would be a suitable partner next year, assuming they want to reach the playoffs. Who are the Vancouver Canucks free agent goaltender targets to play Markstrom’s role, sheltering Demko for a single year? Jaroslav Halak would have been the ideal target, but he has recently come off the market.
This year isn’t the worst time to go goalie shopping, as it happens. There are maybe a dozen unrestricted goalies that could fit Vancouver’s requirements. Specifically: minimal competence, as they want to reach the playoffs; cheap enough to fit in the budget; old enough to accept a short-term deal. It’s unlikely the team would take a chance on a younger veteran trying for a bounceback season like Braden Holtby or Aaron Dell. The older UFA goalies like Craig Anderson are likewise a roll of the dice. Robin Lehner has almost certainly priced himself out of the Canucks’ budget. Who’s left?
Any of Cam Talbot, Anton Khudobin, or Thomas Greiss fit the description. Greiss, it could be argued, is at least partially the result of a tight defensive system. That’s something that cannot be said of the Canucks. Talbot is the youngest of the three and has certainly played behind some weak defences. The problem is that he didn’t do particularly well then. Khudobin has never played the majority of his team’s games, should Demko falter. On the other hand, he’s played 71 games in the past two seasons with the Dallas Stars, and last season was arguably the best of his career.
Khudobin is on his most expensive contract now, at $2.5 million, and the Dallas Stars are pushed tight against the cap. Let’s say Markstrom finds greener pastures (and more term) elsewhere and Vancouver gets Khudobin for $4 million with a second-year to avoid trade protection.
But Wait! There’s More!
And there we are, with $1.325 million to spare. Either of rookies Guillaume Brisbois or Jalen Chatfield can join the team after getting qualified below $800 K. There’s the seventh defenceman, and with the other in the minors, the Canucks still have half a million dollars on hand. If Khudobin agrees to be exposed in the expansion draft, the Canucks could even let Domingue walk. But that doesn’t affect the cap, as he’s in Utica anyway.
Now, what if they wanted to keep Tyler Toffoli…?