The NHL’s opening day closes in and most teams have settled their major roles. The Vancouver Canucks, on the other hand, still have a major issue to sort out in net. Unlike what happens on defence or with the forwards, the decision won’t say much about this season. It will, however, frame the future of the team. What had been a reassuring certainty for the Vancouver Canucks goaltenders only looks it from a distance.
The One Question for the Vancouver Canucks Goaltenders
Over the past two seasons, fans in Vancouver have watched Thatcher Demko establish himself as the Canucks starter. Year one was a sigh of relief as Jacob Markstrom left, and with him whatever safety net Demko had. On the other hand, two veterans were brought in in succession to fill in as Demko’s backup. Braden Holtby didn’t work out, unfortunately, and the former general manager’s desperation showed when Holtby was bought out the next year. That severely limited their options for 2021-22, but the team still managed to land the perfectly decent Jaroslav Halák – whose bonuses they are still paying for.*
The expectation was that the team was waiting for Michael DiPietro to round into form. But he hasn’t – at least not yet. The disastrous decision to move him to Vancouver for the “COVID season” of 2020-21 stopped him from getting ice time in any league. Yes, he got to learn under legendary goalie coach Ian Clark that year. But the 21-year-old played just four competitive games and those in the AHL. There’s only so much that practice can prepare a player for in any sport. Hockey especially is a game of harnessing chaos, and even in the best plans, the opponent – and blind luck – has a say.
Who is the Canucks Goalie of the Future?
Spencer Martin – who the Canucks landed for free from the Tampa Bay Lightning – likely isn’t it. As delightful a story as he’s been, getting the team points in all six of his Canucks starts, he’s also 27 years old. His two-season deal has excellent value and can be easily buried if he bombs out, but he’s not exactly a young up-and-comer. He’s even under some pressure for the backup spot with the Canucks signing veteran Collin Delia.
Here’s the thing with any new arrival to Vancouver: Clark has a very specific and demanding system. It takes a while to learn and adapt to it. In an interview with In Goal Magazine’s Kevin Woodley, Dellia described how he now has to consider changing how his skates are sharpened to match Clark’s technique. There’s always a period of learning who your defencemen are and their play as well, but that’s universal. Everyone moving from an AHL to an NHL team needs to learn that. If he’s going to push Martin out, Dellia has to learn quickly.
Realistically, that leaves two options for future Vancouver Canucks goaltenders: DiPietro and Arturs Silovs.
DiPietro, while a star at the OHL level, was a bit of a high-risk, high-reward pick. At just 17 years old he led the OHL in shutouts and had the third-best save percentage. Vancouver took him in the third round that year. He played even better in the playoffs but didn’t get out of the first round until a trade to the Ottawa 67s in his last year. His 13-0-1 run was only stopped by injury, unfortunately for Ottawa. Without him, Guelph won four straight in the OHL final to win 4-2. So, yeah, DiPietro comes with deserved hype.
However, there are always questions about smaller goaltenders – he’s just 6′ tall – who rely on athleticism. It didn’t help when bad planning and lousy economics meant he had to play in the NHL far before he was ready. Getting absolutely lit up against the second-highest scoring team in the NHL isn’t the debut anyone wanted, but couldn’t have been a surprise. His next start came three years later against a similarly high-powered offence. While he fared better, allowing three goals on 17 shots is an unhappy result.
DiPietro’s put up solid if unspectacular numbers in the AHL. He doesn’t seem to have progressed beyond his very good professional rookie season, though. He was solidly outplayed by Spencer Martin, who is currently sitting in the presumptive NHL backup slot. His agent has been given permission to look for a trade to another team, but Vancouver isn’t going to give him away.
Speaking of Ian Clark, he beat the drum for the Canucks to draft Silovs. They spent a sixth-round pick – one of three they had – to get the Latvian in 2019. He had done very well at the national level and was just brushing against the MHL. Silovs joined an average Barrie Colts team the next year, getting accustomed to North American rinks. The next year? See DiPietro, above.
Silovs played a single AHL game with Winnipeg and six in Latvia with two different teams. Again, not a shining example of developing a player. But nobody knew what was happening in professional leagues pretty much anywhere in the world at that point. Last season, Silovs showed he was willing to go wherever the game was. Ten games in Abbotsford, ten more in the ECHL’s Trois-Rivières, six for Latvia.
Statistically, it’s a jumble of great, good, and mediocre. How is he playing, though? The Canucks absolutely want him to start the year in Abbotsford, and that speaks volumes.
The Problem Is…
One thing the Canucks want to avoid is the dreaded “Three-Headed Monster” in a development league. Having all three of DiPietro, Silovs, and Delia is just going to short one of them ice time. Both Silovs and DiPietro need to get games under their belts. Delia is here to both push Martin at the NHL level and to be a veteran call-up if either Martin or Demko is injured. The Canucks don’t have an ECHL affiliate for 2022-23, so a deal would be needed to send any player to that level. And as they learned from Utica, proximity matters. Clark has a lot of power for the Vancouver Canucks goaltenders, so his word weighs heavily.
If Delia – or Martin, if Delia wins the spot behind Demko – is the injury replacement, he stays in Abbotsford. Behind him will be either Michael DiPietro or Arturs Silovs, but not both. Neither has shown they are slam-dunk NHLers and neither is a bust. But one of them is probably going to be unhappy.
*Hat tip, as ever, to CapFriendly