The 2023-24 Canucks Goaltending is a Strength. Probably.
First, a Little History
“Captain” Kirk McLean left Vancouver via trade to the Carolina Hurricanes in 1998. He arrived via trade with the New Jersey Devils in 1987. In between, he played over 500 games in eleven seasons, all the way to a one-goal Game Seven of the Stanley Cup Final.
He endured the most losses in the league one year (1989-90), the most wins in another (1991-92), and the most ties – fittingly – twice (1989-90 and 1994-95). It proved more difficult to replace him than the team hoped.
The goalies who played 30 or more games for the Canucks in a single season after McLean are a thoroughly mixed bunch. Artūrs Irbe* kicked it off, followed by Garth Snow, Felix Potvin, Bob Essensa, Dan Cloutier, and Alex Auld. Ten more are mixed in the list, but none stuck.
Irbe and Auld were the best of the lot, and Auld’s last year was good enough to be part of the Luongo deal. So, in a way, he helped Vancouver’s goaltending get back on track after a lost decade.
And now, of course, the Canucks goaltending duties are fulfilled by Thatcher Demko. And… someone.
Demko: The Problem That Isn’t
First things first. Thatcher Demko is only trouble when he isn’t there. Those times when he’s playing injured – as he was in the beginning of 2022-23 – or gone leaves big skates to fill. And, it feels like, just as big a net.
His contract is one of the best deals in the NHL, but won’t last forever. His three more years at just $5 million is something for Canucks fans to unironically thank Jim Benning for. If they’re feeling generous, that is.
If they aren’t, then there are plenty of reasons for that, too. One of them is the cap crunch which means Vancouver is reliant on cheap, possibly less reliable goaltending backing Demko up. Whether that’s better or worse than more expensive veterans is debatable, but it’s what’s happening.
Dramatis Personae – Playing the Canucks Goaltending tonight is…
Tolopilo had an excellent season in the Allsvenskan and is trying the North American ice for the first time. He might – if things go poorly for him – start in the ECHL. And the Canucks have room there now, with the Everything-Old-Is-New-Again affiliation with Kalamazoo.
The 6’6″ 23-year-old Belarusian is undrafted and has a two-year, two-way deal. The hope is he’s good enough to learn in Abbotsford, but if he gives the Canucks any depth right away then he’s found money.
Sawchenko has a few NHL games under his belt and his AHL salary of $200K has him destined for Abbotsford. He’s why Tolopilo can start in the ECHL. Sawchenko was the primary backstop for a weak Chicago Wolves team, though you’ll recognize him if you’re a fan of USports.
It seems likely that he won’t be the only AHL veteran in Abbotsford. Injuries are a managed fact in pro hockey and need to be prepared for. Whether the team wants Sawchenko to be carrying the load in Abbotsford or backing up in the NHL will need to be decided in the moment.
Silovs has built himself into a big, splashy name with some very nice numbers in his brief call-up. A .908 save percentage and 2.75 goals against aren’t earth-shaking, but are something that can be built on.
That he is a personal choice of Canucks goaltending guru Ian Clark belies Silovs’ sixth-round draft selection. On the other hand, he has fewer than 60 AHL and NHL games played combined. In an ideal world, Silovs hones his craft in the AHL, picking up another 55-ish starts there.
Complicating things slightly is his expiring contract. The team retains control, but if Silovs shows well it could be an issue. With the Oliver Ekman-Larsson buyout jumping up $2 million in 2024-25 and again in 2025-26, cap space will be tight.
Everyone knew Spencer Martin’s brilliant 2021-22 run wouldn’t last, right? The good news is that everyone – Martin included – was realistic about it when it came time for a new deal. It was a simple, efficient contract that gave him security and the Canucks a cheap, veteran pro.
Martin isn’t going to get the bulk of work come next year, but he shouldn’t need to. While Demko isn’t the most durable goaltender in the league, he’s still going to start around 60 games assuming he remains healthy. That will leave something like 20 games for Martin.
So… The bad news is that Demko didn’t stay healthy, and video scouts are a thing. Teams were prepared for Martin this time and as the primary goaltender he finished his last ten NHL games 0-10-0. He returned to the AHL as Collin Delia and Silovs finished the year.
There is good news, though. Martin regained his form, giving a strong finish to Abbotfords’ season. He was also excellent in four playoff games, though the team finished their run after just six. Silovs did well in the other two, but the problem wasn’t the Canucks goaltending.
Who to Use in 2023-24
It isn’t a question that Thatcher Demko is The Man in Vancouver. A full season behind the reformed defence and new coaching will see his numbers return to normal at the very least. But he won’t be seeing 64 games in a season again – hopefully – which leaves a need at backup.
The choices are Martin, Silovs, or another cheap, NHL-quality veteran like Delia was last year. There is an argument to be made for any of those three situations this season. However, not all the arguments are good ones.
Bringing in a veteran may be reassuring to Canucks management, but it comes at a cost. Not necessarily the $4.3 million of Braden Holtby, or the bonus-riddled deal for Jaroslav Halák. Even Delia’s modest $750K one-way deal is expensive – if it blocks a prospect’s progress.
With someone new taking the backup role, Martin and Silovs will be battling for ice time in Abbotsford. And if the Canucks are looking to the future, that isn’t a great choice for anyone. Martin has earned his chops in the AHL, and if he’s starting the season there, then he should be starting there.
And given he has a one-way deal, Martin’s $775K is an awful lot not to use.
Silovs, on the other hand, is the future of Canucks goaltending. Or at least that’s what they’re planning for. His 44 AHL games were great value given his $70K paycheque. That was supplemented with some NHL games, both starting and as backup.
The logical decision is to have Martin in the NHL and Silovs handed all the starts he can eat in Abbotsford. In case of minor injuries, Sawchenko or a journeyman can come up from the AHL – as Delia did – in support of Martin.
Really, anyone can sit on a bench. It isn’t where you want your young players to be, though. Any major injury to Demko and things will need to change, but unless Vancouver wants six goaltenders on the payroll, adding more now seems superfluous.
*One of three Latvian goaltenders to play for Vancouver. Out of six so far in the entirety of the NHLs history. Go fig.
Main Photo Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports