Changes in Vancouver Canucks Goaltending
From the outside, it looks like a simple case of “One In, One Out” and no questions asked. One veteran played himself out of town, so another was brought in to replace him. The contract Jacob Markstrom signed with the Calgary Flames was well out of the Canucks’ reach, financially speaking. With their Goalie of the Future proving himself in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, an extended deal for their Goalie of the Present was also out of the question.
The story was a little more complicated than that, as it always is. But for this article, we’re looking to the future.
Holt, Who Goes Here
The easiest way to look at the Braden Holtby deal is to see him as a direct replacement for Markstrom. He’s an established veteran who has carried the majority of games for his team for the past few years. His playing style meshes well – they hope – with the way the Canucks play. But beyond that? Not much is comparable, for better and for worse.
Holtby’s numbers have been sliding over the past few years. His personal career-high was the 2016-17 season, setting himself up nicely for the Washington Capital’s Stanley Cup win the next year. In fact, Holtby had an absolutely brilliant three-year stretch from 2014-15 through 2016-17. In those 202 games, he had a .923 save percentage, 2.11 goals-against average, and 131 wins. He won a Jennings Trophy as well as the Vezina and made the All-Star Team twice. He’s also bringing the first Stanley Cup ring on a Canucks goaltender since Charlie Hodge was their final expansion draft pick in 1971. Not a bad replacement at all!
Unfortunately, the next three years – while they included the Cup win – were not so kind. Last season was easily his worst in the NHL with a .897 save percentage and 3.11 goals-against average. The Canucks are clearly hoping for a return to his 2018-19 style where he was solidly average for the league. This is a little alarming to the casual Canucks fan, given how the man he’s replacing was the team’s MVP. But the secret weapon is goalie coach Ian Clark, under whom Markstrom had his best years. There is little doubt of Clark’s influence on the Vancouver Canucks goaltending over the years. He and head coach Travis Green work very closely together to coordinate the playing style of the team with the strengths of their goalies – and it works. Or at least it has worked. We’ll soon find out if it continues to do so even with the change in personnel.
Back(up) By Popular Demand
Thatcher Demko has been brought along carefully, playing just one game in his first NHL season and nine the next. The 2019-20 season was going to see him as a full-time backup behind Markstrom, getting as many as one start a week or so. Some back-to-back weekends, that sort of workload. And that’s pretty much how it went, with four starts in October, another six in November. And for the most part, he was solid – sometimes spectacular, sometimes… not. Pretty much what you would expect from a young goaltender in his first full season. Then came Markstrom’s injury in February and everything changed.
Demko was pressed into the starter’s role, and he handled it with aplomb. He had an excellent first game against the Montreal Canadiens and looked ready to take on the world. Which was good, because after building up a stack of points early, the Canucks were slipping in the standings. The pressure was on to make the playoffs – enough so that they brought in Tyler Toffoli the week before to buffer the temporary absence of Brock Boeser. That win in Montreal eased fans’ fears. Following it with three straight losses brought those fears right back again.
Emergence, Not Emergency
His seven games to close out the season were fine – if he was still the backup. For a starter, though? His .906 save percentage wasn’t going to be good enough after the team relied so heavily on Markstrom’s brilliance. He was getting better in the games leading up to the league-wide pause, but the playoffs weren’t a certainty anymore. Some argue that the pause saved the Canucks, others that it made little difference. One certainty is that when he was called on again against the Vegas Golden Knights, he was absolutely brilliant. Demko obviously won’t be able to achieve those numbers for an extended time, but there is reason to believe he is better than his regular-season numbers suggest.
Here’s the Keys, Kid. Don’t Break Anything.
With Louis Domingue going where all former Canucks do, right now Vancouver’s third goalie is Michael DiPietro. And he’s pretty much guaranteed the bulk of whatever work happens with the Utica Comets. With the AHL in limbo just now, it’s difficult to predict exactly what with happen with DiPietro this season. His first full professional year was fine, ending up with numbers similar to Demko’s. His unfortunate initiation to the NHL – the second youngest goalie to ever play for the Canucks – was a disaster, but he’s not the sort of personality to dwell on bad outings.
Obviously, the ideal would be to have him lead the Comets into 2020-21 as the clear-cut starter rather than splitting duties again. He’s being groomed to back up Demko at the end of Holtby’s tenure, but that’s a season away yet. But without knowing what the AHL season is going to look like or even where it will play? There are just no answers as to what will best suit DiPietro’s development. He may well end up in Vancouver as a third goalie – if that’s a thing this season.
Markstrom’s loss is big, no denying it. But by all accounts, Holtby is a fast learner, and he’s under no illusions what his role is. He’s in Vancouver as a veteran with Demko, not as The Man. Holtby’s going to be the Canucks goalie exposed for the Seattle Kraken expansion draft. He knows he’ll be under pressure, but not as much as his net-mate. Demko is expected to show he is the right choice to backstop the Canucks in their return to the top of the league.
Between Holtby, Demko, and DiPietro, the Vancouver Canucks goaltending looks solid well into the future. They have the potential to be better than that. Now they have to prove it.
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